INDEPENDENCE, Missouri, USA — Rodolfo Castro does not remember how old he was when he saw Albert Pujols for the first time, nor the exact circumstances in which it occurred. Perhaps it was at a Major League game or during one of the famous slugger’s charitable visits to his native Dominican Republic.
What Castro does remember is how he felt. Like a wonder boy who knew his hero.
“I know I was a little kid,” recalled Castro, now 23 and an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “And I was very shy. I was embarrassed to approach him, because I knew how big he was and what he represented.”
It was only last year, after Castro signed with the Pirates and climbed the complicated minor league ladder, that he learned how unfounded his fears were. The Pirates were facing the Dodgers and Castro had been walked in the fifth inning.
“Pujols was on first,” he recalled. “And we just chatted briefly. He warmly welcomed me to the majors and congratulated me. And the next day in that same series, during batting practice, I was able to walk up to him and just tell him it was nice to meet him and what a great guy he was.” honor to play with him on the same ground. He was very kind to me and encouraged me to continue playing”.
Walking into any major league clubhouse, you’ll always find someone who can share a similar story about Pujols: Some shared laugh in batting practice, some chance encounter in the offseason, some chance to work with him in the community.
They all gladly share their stories, especially at a time when the star is five home runs away from reaching the 700 in his career.
Most of the anecdotes have to do with how Pujols inspired an entire generation of baseball players, particularly Latinos, who saw him rise from humble roots in the Dominican Republic to become a figure in the sport.
“It was something very special, mainly because it was unexpected,” Castro said of his meeting with Pujols in August 2021. “I had a lot of mixed feelings, I was very nervous about meeting him, but it was something special, something I won’t forget.”
Before success and million-dollar contracts, Pujols has a history of financial hardship.
He was raised primarily with his grandmother, as well as various aunts and uncles in Santo Domingo. He frequently recalls that he had a glove improvised from a box. And whatever fruit was available served as a ball for the sport he came to love.
Pujols ended up emigrating with his family to New York in 1996. He moved to Independence, a suburb of Kansas City, where Dave Fry, his high school coach at Fort Osage, once considered him “a gift from the baseball gods.”
Nothing he has done over the next two decades has been able to persuade anyone otherwise.
Pujols played for some time at Maple Woods Community College before St. Louis drafted him – much to the chagrin of Royals fans, who still lament that the 11-time All-Star who grew up close to the Kauffman Stadium will end up winning two World Series with the Cardinals, bitter rivals from the state of Missouri.
Along the way, Pujols showed Latino players from the humblest backgrounds that it was possible to be somebody.
“Pujols is someone who not only I, but my entire country, admire a lot. We respect him deeply,” said Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz, who is 23 and grew up in the small Dominican town of Nizao. “Something I’ve admired a lot about Pujols is that he achieves the goals that he sets for himself. As a young player, that means a lot to me because it shows me that I’m capable of doing that.”
To the surprise of many, Pujols continues to do so.
After being named NL MVP three times, winning six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves, it seemed time had finally caught up with the 42-year-old.
The decade he spent playing for the Los Angeles Angels was a rather low-key continuation of his 12 breakout years with St. Louis. Many believed that the stay with the Dodgers, which culminated last year with a trip to the National League Championship Series, would be an appropriate way to go into retirement for him.
But Pujols had other plans. He wanted to go back to St. Louis, where the fans still loved him. His goal was to reunite with veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright and Puerto Rican catcher Yadier Molina for one last season together.
They now lead the Central Division of the National League, at the start of the last month of the regular season.
Pujols has played a leading role in this. He is batting .242 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs after Thursday’s game against Washington. He is five homers away from joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the exclusive club of players with 700 or more in his career.
“I’m glad he’s healthy and doing what he does,” Molina said in the clubhouse, where the televisions were showing an MLB Network debate on whether Pujols is the greatest player of this century.
Regarding the milestone of 700 home runs, Molina considered: “It would be special for all of us here. I hope he can achieve it.”
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With sights on the 700, Pujols and Cardinals march to the playoffs