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For the next half hour, the 41-year-old opened up about purpose and responsibility, the passage of time and fragility of the future. He reflected upon the last two decades, the legacy he has been cementing since the moment he burst into Major League Baseball.
Only, Pujols wasn’t talking just about his playing career. These recollections transcended the field.
“There’s more than just baseball,” Pujols said, intensity building in his voice during a video call with The Times. “At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘What are you going to do with the gift?’ Not talent, but the money and the fame. Are you just going to keep it for yourself? Or are you going to use that talent and that gift to help others?”
Ahead of what could be his last major league campaign, the 21-year veteran entering the final year of his Angels contract undecided about whether he will continue playing beyond this season, Pujols measured his success by more than just home runs (he has 663) and RBI (2,104), World Series titles (two) and MVP awards (three).
“Don’t get me wrong, records and homers and World Series and all that, it means a lot,” he said. “But that is just a little piece of what gives me joy.”
It’s a classic commercial.
An in-his-prime Pujols stands in front of a copy machine. Two ESPN "SportsCenter" anchors approach, calling him by his nickname: “The Machine.” Pujols plays dumb, responding with a puzzled look: “What are you talking about?” But then, the screen cuts to a robotic filter representing Pujols’ point-of-view.
“I’m not a machine, OK?” Pujols reiterates — the irony, of course, being that he actually was. “I’m just Albert.”
During the height of his career with the Angels and St. Louis Cardinals, the ad, which originally aired in 2009, appeared over and over again on ESPN’s airwaves, reinforcing the methodically unflappable identity of, at the time, baseball’s best player.
“We never wanted to take Albert for granted,” said former Cardinals and current White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who reunited with Pujols last season as an advisor for the Angels. “We always kept reminding ourselves that what we were seeing was greatness.”
But behind “The Machine,” La Russa always recognized a great man too — guided by what the longtime manager called a “tremendous moral compass” that his nickname never fully captured.
“I’ve seen some outstanding examples, especially the last couple years, players are more aware of what they should give back to the community, to different causes,” La Russa added. “But I’ve never seen anybody do more than Albert.”
From the start of his rookie season in 2001, Pujols has been uniquely active with philanthropic work outside of the sport.
After he married his wife Deidre in 2000 and adopted her baby daughter, Isabella, who has Down syndrome, the couple got involved with the local Down syndrome community in St. Louis before launching the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005.
The organization’s early goals were modest. When chief executive Todd Perry recently unearthed his initial proposal to the Pujolses — a thin folder he presented them during spring training in 2004 — the contents made him laugh.
“One of the things was, when we’re fully mature and hitting on all cylinders,” Perry said, “we should be doing 12 events a year.”
They quickly shattered that expectation, growing to host more than 100 events annually, including a prom for students with Down syndrome, mission trips to Pujols’ native Dominican Republic and dozens of fundraisers across the country. Since joining the Angels, Pujols and Deidre have launched other initiatives too, such as Open Gate International and Strike Out Slavery that combat human trafficking and provide victims with life skills and job training.
While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their normal schedule of events, the foundation had built a strong enough support base to withstand the financial burden.
And as the years have gone by, Pujols increasingly meets strangers who thank him not for his athletic exploits but because of ways they had been affected by his charity.
“I attended one of his banquets in St. Louis when I first got the job,” second-year Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “It was so impressive, the scope of it, how many people he touches. If you’ve never had a chance to engage him in that conversation, please do. Because that’s where the real person shows up, and you really find out what he’s all about.”
Even as Pujols’ numbers have fallen (he has posted below league-average metrics in four straight seasons) and his playing time has diminished (Jared Walsh probably will get the majority of playing time at first base, though Pujols started in Thursday’s season opener), Pujols still feels an intrinsic draw to the game.
He said he embraces “being pretty much the grandpa” among MLB players and serving as a role model for younger stars.
“It’s pretty amazing to see that every day, it’s the same routine,” said Mike Trout, Pujols’ longest current Angels teammate. “It’s good for the young guys to see the commitment, what it takes to be a successful player in this league.”
There’s hope he’s on track to rebound from his career-worst 2020 campaign too. After hitting .224 with a .665 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season, he posted a .313 batting average with six extra-base hits this spring.
“He’s very engaged, very motivated,” Maddon said. “I’ve really been appreciative of how vocal he’s been. He’s been talking winning, he’s been talking World Series, and he’s trying to share his experiences.”
But that hasn’t stopped Pujols from picturing some of his post-career plans, preparing for whenever he opts to retire.
Perry said they’ve always intended for the foundation to last beyond Pujols’ playing days. And Pujols envisions a future where his five children, who have been involved in the charity work as they’ve grown up, take over the organization’s effort.
“I’ve told my kids, ‘Guys, you are gonna be the future. You are gonna be the ones running the show,’ ” Pujols said.
He knows many might gloss over this chapter of his story, that his performance on the field — both during his good years with the Cardinals, and his recent decline with the Angels — has long overshadowed the things he does off of it.
But the way he sees it, “they are two things that I can’t separate,” he said. “They go together. Because through that blessing in the field, I’m able to help so many people.”
During a moment of introspection, Pujols began to laugh, explaining a philosophy he knew would sound funny but, even after two decades under an MLB spotlight, still rings true.
“At the end of the day, when we die, they put us in a nice suit so we can look good in the casket,” he said. “But you cannot take anything else with you. You cannot take all your cars. Or your home.”
Or, in Pujols’ case, one of baseball’s all-time great careers.
“So I’ve tried to get the most out of [life] by making an impact in the community,” he continued, adding, “The game is going to be part of your memory, but to put a smile on a family or a kid, that’s treasure.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.