Gruesomely cool images of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols dance into your living room like a Dominican Republic merengue. Pujols wears a warrior mask as he menacingly swings his bat to the rhythm that Nike dictates. The Cardinals’ superstar, the apparent future cornerstone of the new Busch Stadium in 2006, is a commercial success.
Pujols has come a long way from just four seasons ago when he first suited up in the Cards’ famous double-birded home jersey. “I remember 2001 when I first made the team,” he says. “I was really scared because I was a young Christian, and I didn’t know how things were going to go-until one of the best teammates I had, Mike Matheny, took me under his wings and told me everything was going to be all right.
“I’m pretty sure it was the same way with Stan Musial. When he played, they tried to take care of each other and help each other out.”
Stan Musial is synonymous with baseball history in St. Louis. And for many observers, Pujols’ talent calls to mind the greatness of Stan the Man.
Clearly, part of the secret within Albert Pujols is the secret of the storied St. Louis Cardinals franchise, a National League fixture since 1892 and winner of nine world championships. Pujols is standing on the shoulders of such Cardinal Hall of Famers as Musial, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Dizzy Dean, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith.
Pujols understands the pull baseball has with the fans in what some call the best baseball city in the land.
“I’m going into my fifth season with the Cardinals,” says the 25-year-old slugger who went to high school in Independence, Missouri. “It’s awesome to see 35,000 to 45,000 people every night. When you see a 65- or 75-year-old person with a lineup card, and he is writing down everything you do, it’s unbelievable. You don’t see that in every stadium.
“I think that goes with the respect the guys from the past have built up. That’s why I say Lou Brock, Red Schoendienst, and those guys put the city of St. Louis where [it is]. A lot of people know that the Cardinals’ fans are the best. I’m glad the Lord put me in this city.”
Pujols knows that there is more in St. Louis these days than standing on the shoulders of past Cardinal greats. He is also standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a different way with current Cardinal teammates as Cal Eldred, Reggie Sanders, So Taguchi, and Cody McKay. Together these Christian athletes have one goal-to represent the great St. Louis Cardinals baseball tradition in a way that will glorify God.
Pujols needs the support of those guys, for, as he says, “I’m still a baby in Christ. I keep learning and just follow my leader-follow the things that the Lord wants me to do.”
McKay, 31, a backup catcher, understands the dual responsibility of Cardinal history and Christian commitment. “Ultimately, I think I can reach out to a lot of people, especially in St. Louis, because they’re very receptive to us,” he says. “And we need to give back as much as they give to us, for the kingdom, to make Jesus famous in St. Louis.”
Back in 1991, Jesus was hardly famous among the Cardinals. When a Cardinals fan named Judy Boen stepped out in faith to launch the first Christian Family Day at an American sports stadium, she sensed that players were afraid to testify for Christ. It took a rather unknown pitcher named Scott Terry, who raced onto the field with his glove as visual aid to share the gospel, to plant the seed. Now Christian Family Day has blossomed into a 12-state draw for the Cardinals selling 12,000 tickets. Several other professional teams in various sports venues now have similar events.
Part of the ongoing legacy of Christian Family Day in St. Louis is that a player like Pujols can speak freely about his relationship with Christ within a greater clubhouse culture that continues to be penetrated by light. When pitcher Andy Benes came to the Cardinals in 1996, both he and his wife, Jennifer, noted at the time how easy it was to speak about spiritual things because of the pioneering work of Boen and her Christian Family Day committee members.
Boen’s daughter, Christe, is a chiropractor whose patients include Pujols and a few other Cardinals players. Six years ago, she came up with the idea to make baseball cards with testimonies from the Cardinals. Deidre Pujols, Albert’s wife, says these cards have provided great protection from overzealous fans.
“They think they’re just getting a baseball card and an autograph until they really read what’s on the back of it,” she says. “It’s all about Albert’s testimony, and it’s so awesome to have that because I believe that card helps take away that superstar [status].”
Christe Boen estimates that more than a million of these Christian baseball cards have been handed out over the last 6 years, with more than 50,000 alone being distributed at last year’s Christian Family Day.
“When Albert handed them out in the Dominican, he stopped traffic one day because everyone was trying to get one when they recognized him,” she says.
Pujols and the Boens worship together at West County Community Church, in the St. Louis suburb of Wildwood, where Phil Hunter is the pastor. Hunter’s zeal for evangelism has born fruit in the St. Louis professional sports community through athletes like Pujols who feel comfortable letting him into their circle of confidants.
Hunter has mentored Pujols to the point where he has developed a special A to Z list for the Cardinals slugger on the attributes of Jesus. Pujols is in the process of using this list to brag on Jesus among his teammates. This A to Z list consists of character qualities, or truths, about the Lord Jesus Christ, such as Almighty, Beautiful, and Comforter. Hunter explains that as the believer shares his faith through this method, he lifts up Jesus in evangelism so that all people will be drawn to Him (John 12:32).
Hunter and Boen both have noticed Pujols taking this seriously, and it has greatly encouraged them. Boen says she is thankful she can count on him to support her in the days leading up to Christian Family Day, knowing that the Cardinals’ leader and his wife both have a desire to magnify Christ.
“Deidre and Albert get what we’re trying to accomplish,” Boen says.
Three young men from the church like to play video games with Pujols. These are Hunter’s sons- Phil Jr., 29, Joshua, 27, and Matt, 20. The youngest brother says they all act like family.
“Everybody always treats Albert like he’s something special, and we just treat him like he’s one of us,” Matt Hunter says. “He’s just another guy. Everybody needs encouragement, and everybody needs prayer. My dad has really discipled Albert, and the three of us all kind of have our own different roles. We come alongside Albert and love him not because he’s a baseball player but because he’s God’s child, and God is using him to advance the kingdom. We just are brothers with him.”
The depth of faith in the Cardinals’ clubhouse can be seen by examining the recent loss of two mature Christians from the flock. Catcher Matheny and pitcher Woody Williams were strong figures in the clubhouse last year, and they helped lead the team to the World Series. Outfielder Jim Edmonds, who is not known for making public statements about his religious beliefs, mentioned in an off-season television interview how the loss of the clubhouse intangibles contained within these two players may prove to be difficult for the Cardinals to overcome this season.
Eldred, a 37-year-old relief pitcher; Sanders, a 37-year-old outfielder; and Taguchi, a 35-year-old outfielder, are all part of a tapestry that runs red with the color of the Cardinals as well as with the redeeming blood of Christ. Christian TV and radio announcers like Wayne Hagin, Bob Carpenter, Rick Horton, and Terry, who are connected to the team through various media outlets, add to the Master’s work of art along the Gateway Arch.
So what happens when these Cardinal players get together-away from the pressures of the game and immersed in Christian fellowship?
“We encourage each other,” Pujols says. “We have a prayer time. We also have a Bible study on Sunday, which is awesome. We have a great study time every Wednesday. I remember a couple of years ago, we were reading a book, The Purpose-Driven Life, and we would get together on road trips. We’d have 12 or 13 guys in the room after a night game. We didn’t care [how late it was], because if you don’t have time for the Lord, you don’t have time for anything.”
Some of these guys also eagerly step out into the spotlight to testify during Christian Family Day.
Last summer, in what may have been the most powerful testimony for the King of kings ever communicated at Busch Stadium, a group of four Cardinals players and one coach came onto the field at Christian Family Day to gather around a 14-foot replica of a Roman cross built right there at the ballpark by evangelist Joe White. Pujols, Matheny, Taguchi, and Eldred stood with first base coach Dave McKay, Cody’s father, as White, founder of Kanakuk Kamps in Branson, Missouri, explained how the cross will remain a constant in history after all of their athletic fame is gone.
“It’s safe to say it’s a Christian-based ballclub,” Cody McKay says. “If you ever have a question, there’s somebody to go to, and we’re there for each other. I’ve come from different teams where it’s just not there.”
In the offseason, Matheny told Pujols it was his turn to be the spiritual leader of the Cardinals.
“Well, that’s my job,” says Pujols, laughing. “That’s my job this year. He told me to keep growing and to come as a leader and take care of the young guys coming up.”
Part of his overall leadership emphasis this season is to play the game the way Musial, Brock, and Gibson played it-with a great deal of respect for the Cardinal name and tradition.
“They played the game hard,” Pujols says. “As young players right now, that’s the same thing we want to do.”
Horton, who pitched for the 1985 and 1987 Cardinals teams that won the National League pennant and now serves as a Baseball Chapel leader for the team as well as a fill-in TV and radio voice, says that Cardinals fans tend to act like folks from a small town cheering for their local high school baseball team.
“I know from my travels that it’s not the same in other places,” Horton says. “St. Louis is not a college town. It’s really a baseball town-a Cardinal town in terms of its identity. I think the players really reap the rewards from that, because you get a different kind of connection here with the fans.
“For six months you are what’s happening. You’re on the front page of the sports section and you are what people talk about at the water coolers at work. You drive around town and you see people wearing red. In pennant races, everybody wears red. It’s kind of humbling in a way, because you realize you’re a part of the psyche of an entire city.”
With Matheny and Williams no longer in the clubhouse for the Cardinals this season, more of the attention is being focused on Pujols-not simply for his hitting and fielding, but also for his walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s fine with the young superstar. “I think there are some people who look at me and say, ‘Oh, man, you are awesome.’ They look at me like that and I say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to follow my Lord Jesus.’ That’s who I’m trying to represent every day I step on the field.”
McKay sees the shift in leadership to Pujols as a positive. Cardinal players will follow this merengue.
“I think Albert takes it to a different level where his relationship with God is evident throughout the league, with his teammates, and at home,” McKay says.
Allen Palmeri is a longtime Sports Spectrum writer and columnist who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. Freelance writer Lee Warren contributed to this article.
By Allen Palmeri
This story was published in the May/June 2005 issue of Sports Spectrum. Allen Palmeri is a longtime Sports Spectrum writer and columnist who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. Freelance writer Lee Warren contributed to this article.