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Thursday, August 14
Updated: August 20, 12:25 PM ET
Pujols dispels skepticism, eyes MVP

By Joe Morgan
Special to

After meeting St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, I can see why manager Tony La Russa is singing his praises.

La Russa talks about Pujols like a proud father talking about his son. Earlier this season, La Russa called Pujols the best player he's ever managed. I've known La Russa for a long time, and I know he doesn't throw out the accolades lightly. When I spoke with Pujols for the first time earlier this week, I likewise came away impressed.

Albert Pujols
Left Field/First Base
St. Louis Cardinals
34 108 .368 107 42 .433
I helped broadcast ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" game that Pujols won for the Cardinals with an eighth-inning home run off Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz (it was also the game in which Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal turned an unassisted triple play, the 12th in major-league history).

I interviewed the 23-year-old Pujols before Sunday's game. I was impressed not only with him as a person but also with his knowledge of and approach to hitting.

Riding a 28-game hitting streak, Pujols is vying for the National League MVP award with Barry Bonds, the reigning MVP. Unfortunately for Pujols and other great NL hitters, they play in the Bonds era. It's similar to golf -- Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III play in the Tiger Woods era.

MVP Debate
Last year, Pujols finished second to Bonds in the MVP voting. Just about any another year, Pujols would have won the award. If the Giants win their division but the Cardinals don't win theirs, Barry likely will win again.

But if the Cardinals win the NL Central, I would lean toward Pujols. Barry has five MVPs already, and he probably doesn't have any room on his walls for another.

One's view of who deserves the MVP depends on one's MVP definition. There are differing opinions about how much weight to give to an individual's performance vs. his team's performance. I believe you should factor in how an MVP candidate's team fares. For instance, if MVP candidates are essentially equal, where their teams finish could be the tie-breaker.

History has favored this view. Just last year, Alex Rodriguez clearly had the best offensive season in the American League, but Miguel Tejada won the MVP because he was the driving offensive force in the A's run to the playoffs. In 1998, Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' single-season record for home runs, finishing with 70, but Sammy Sosa won the MVP because he led the Cubs to the playoffs (Sosa also broke Maris' record with 66).

There are exceptions. Andre Dawson won the NL MVP in 1987 even though his Cubs finished last in the NL East. An earlier Cub, Ernie Banks, won back-to-back MVPs ('58 and '59) despite playing on losing teams.

It appears that Pujols is Bonds' heir apparent as the NL's best hitter, but Barry hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. At 39, he appears to be in shape to play for as long as he wants. Until he retires or his skills diminish, Bonds will set the standard. No one impacts a game the way he does.

Skeptical No More
I was skeptical before meeting Pujols, because I've been reading and hearing how he could be the greatest right-handed hitter ever. I'm always hesitant to hand out such accolades to a player who's in only his third year in the big leagues. I liked a quote from Bonds that I read, something along the lines of, "So far, he's had a great career."

Now, after meeting Pujols, I will say this: He seems to have unlimited potential as far as his understanding of the game and his ability to make adjustments. His hitting philosophy covers three key areas that few hitters master: 1) hit to all fields; 2) swing quicker, not harder; and 3) hands are the key to a good swing.

I've never seen a young hitter use the entire field the way Pujols does.
I asked Pujols, who bats right-handed, about his performance in the Home Run Derby. He hit home runs all over -- to center, to right-center, to left. At the Home Run Derby, guys usually pull the ball. Not Pujols.

In the second round, he said he felt so relaxed he decided to just take batting practice. And that's what he does in games, driving the ball to right field, left field and in between. That approach alone tells you how much he knows about hitting.

He's amazing. I've never seen a young hitter use the entire field the way Pujols does.

Pujols also said something in the interview that proved to be prophetic: "The harder a pitcher throws, the more relaxed I become."

This enables him to swing the bat more quickly. Often, when batters face a pitcher who throws hard, they swing harder, which actually slows their bat down. When a pitcher throws hard, you want to swing quicker, not harder. In the eighth inning that night, Pujols hit his home run off the hard-throwing Smoltz with such a relaxed, quick swing.

Pujols also understands that your hands are the key to your swing, not your lower body. His philosophy is to work from the hands down, while many other hitters work from the foundation up.

Honesty, The Best Policy
I appreciated Pujols' honesty during our conversation. He didn't give stock answers. When I asked him if he set goals before the season, he said: 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored (yes, he's already surpassed those: 34 HRs, 108 RBI, 107 runs, .368 average).

But some guys would say, "No, I don't set personal goals, because it's all about the team's goals." I liked Pujols' answer, because players should set goals before each season. Someone might object, "But that's an individual thing." Well, baseball is an individual sport with a team concept. Your success as an individual contributes to the team's success.

Pujols says he wants to get even better -- but I don't now how much better he can become!

He said his favorite position is third base, but playing different positions doesn't bother him. He has played mainly in left field this season and has filled in often at first base. Since Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen has a long-term contract, Pujols will probably end up at first base, because Tino Martinez's contract is up before Rolen's. Pujols said he was so happy to be in the majors as a rookie that he didn't care where he played.

By the way, the main reason Pujols is batting .368 is that he uses the entire field. But I don't believe a right-handed hitter will hit .370 often, because there are too many quality right-handed pitchers. There are fewer left-handed pitchers in general, giving a left-handed hitter better matchups. Andres Galarraga, a right-handed batter, hit .370 with the Rockies in '93, but credit some of that to playing in Denver's mile-high air.

Chat Reminder: I'll answer your questions in an chat Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975-76.

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