Albert Pujols Is A Great Ballplayer, But Not A Great Leader
I remember watching the final game of the 2005 season. Afterwards, the Cardinals organization held a special ceremony to say goodbye to Busch Stadium II, which was scheduled to be demolished in the following weeks to make way for the opening of Busch III the following year. The scene was jubilant as the players were introduced to huge fanfare. One of the last players announced was Albert Pujols. When he emerged to trot across the the field to the adoration of the crowd, something struck me. Pujols was wearing flip flops, shorts, and an expensive shirt. His cap was turned backwards, and he had 50 pounds of gold jewelry strung around his neck.
I looked hard at the image. It didn’t really look like the Pujols I was accustomed to seeing. ”Boy, that Albert sure does think highly of himself these days,” I muttered in confusion.
There is no doubt that Pujols deserves much of the acclaim he has received as one of the most prolific hitters in baseball history. I’m sure the fervent fan worship and the huge checks would be overwhelming to anyone, especially someone like Pujols who grew up poor and generally disregarded in his early life. Nobody could be faulted if such glory went to their head a little bit.
But Pujols has made his name and business based around his supposed humility. To foster that idea, Pujols has done much to help disabled children and poor families in other countries. That is certainly commendable, and a fine example to others who have similar means and talents.
However, Pujols makes his living as a ballplayer on a major league team. According to Pujols himself, the team is all that matters to him. And yet, we see very little of this public humility in the clubhouse where he makes his extravagant living. On the field, Pujols is selfishly chasing his own goals (as fine as they are) rather than looking to humbly lead a team and teach his fellow players.
Pujols is fond of bringing up the example of Jesus, so we’ll use that as a yardstick. The Jesus of the Bible was a humble person who taught others, considering their needs above his own. He was a leader among the men of his day because he attracted others to him through his humility and approachable nature. Does this sound like the Pujols we see today in the Cardinals clubhouse?
One example of this came last year during the very public spat between Tony LaRussa and Colby Rasmus. When the story broke, Pujols approached Rasmus on the team plane between cities and talked to him about his attitude – and it was reported that it was the first time the two had spoken to each other at length in the nearly two years that Rasmus had been on the team!
A humble leader would’ve defused the situation much earlier by teaching the younger player, talking to him about approach, taking time to work with him and build up both his skill level and his confidence. Pujols did none of this in the case of Rasmus.
However, a humble leader must sometimes stand up for what is right, either in the clubhouse or on the field. Taking another cue from the Biblical Jesus, we see Jesus, filled with righteous indignation, standing up against Pharisaical hypocrisy and lies. He was not afraid to stand up for his friends, either, eventually willing to surrender his life for them.
Do we see this leadership trait in Pujols? Not at all. Remember the brawl in Cincinnati last August? You see Yadier Molina vehemently defending his teammates. You see Carpenter doing tha same. Jason LaRue ended his career by fighting for the respect of his team, his friends. But where was Pujols? Cashing a check in the dugout? He was nowhere to be found in the melee.
The point is that Molina and Carpenter emerged from that incident as real leaders on this team, men who can lead by example with statistics and work ethic (like Pujols has done) while also getting their uniforms dirty in the process of standing up for what is right among their peers. Unlike Pujols, they are the types of players who inspire and teach younger players through their words and actions, not just their statistics, their personal successes, or their immense gold chains.
Cardinal fans have seen real leaders in the past, and they know one when they see him. Players like Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee humbly took younger players into their own homes in order to help instruct them and inspire them. Matt Morris, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen were fiery competitors who made younger players part of their inner circle, motivating them to play beyond their capabilities. We’ve even been enjoyed managers with a spirit of humble leadership; think about how Whitey Herzog used to take young guys fishing, or spend extra time with individual players to improve their game! Any team could use leadership like that!
The deflating end of this season has returned the conversation back to Pujols: Will he hit .300 this year? Will he stay? And for how much money?? Pujols seems to have bought into the importance of his own personal stats as well, barking at the media for doubting his abilities and pressing to reach his personal statistical goals.
Well, for $30 million dollars a year (the “humble” amount Pujols sought last spring), I expect more than just a bunch of high-and-mighty numbers that look great in a graph on a baseball stat site. I expect my $30 million to provide my team with an example of leadership, a cornerstone player who can help develop younger players and inspire them to achieve their own dreams. I expect my $30 million to provide my team with fiery competition, not for his own glorious legacy, but that of his teammates and his team.
I have not seen that out of Pujols in a long time, if ever. Pujols is a great ballplayer, but one playing only for himself.