Pujols' motivation begins at home
Three-time MVP shares special relationship with daughter
The little girl's name is Isabella, and she occupies a special place in Albert Pujols' heart.
Isabella was just a toddler, a little girl with Down Syndrome, when Pujols married her mother, Deidre, in 2000. "Isabella touched a nerve right from the start," Pujols said. "When she came into my life, she changed my life."
Pujols was a year away from joining the Cardinals and becoming one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He would be Rookie of the Year the next season, win the batting title two years later and win three Most Valuable Player awards. There have been five Silver Slugger awards and a Gold Glove. He is the only player in Major League history to hit 30 or more home runs in each of his first nine seasons and joined Hall of Famer Al Simmons as the only players with nine straight 100-RBI seasons.
None of that matters nearly as much to him, though, as a simple smile from Isabella.
The slugger was two weeks away from his 20th birthday when he married Deidre. "And suddenly, I become a parent," he said.
More importantly, though, he became the parent of a child with special needs.
"I never knew anything about it at the time," Pujols said. "As we went along, she taught me the impact of it. When I became a daddy to her, it caught me up to deal with the situation. No matter what, I would be there for her."
Isabella's condition gave Pujols a charitable cause to embrace and he has done that with a passion. In 2005, he launched the Pujols Family Foundation, dedicated to the love, care and development of people with Down Syndrome. It also supports impoverished families in the Dominican Republic, where Pujols was born.
In 2009, he used a $70,000 grant from the Major League Baseball Players Trust to help fund the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Mo. The Center provides nutrition, exercise programs and counseling for adults with Down Syndrome. In 2003, he helped sponsor the inaugural St. Louis Down Syndrome Association golf benefit which continues as an event for his foundation.
All of his work earned him baseball's Roberto Clemente Award in 2008.
"This is not about me," Pujols said. "It's about the kids and adults who have this condition."
The Cardinals support his efforts. Each year, the team hosts a "Buddy Walk" game to salute those with Down Syndrome, kids like Isabella Pujols.
At the game in 2006, children with Down Syndrome ringed the field at Busch Stadium before the game and in a touching ceremony, a number of them stood with players at their positions during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Predictably, several of the kids asked Pujols to hit a home run for them.
That is no simple task. It is the stuff of Babe Ruth, the kind of legend and lore that gets passed down from one baseball generation to the next. Pujols did not hit one home run that day.
He hit three.
And he just missed a fourth.
"To be able to do that on a special day like that ... I thank God for the opportunity to put a smile on the faces of kids and adults," Pujols said. "I wasn't trying for home runs. I was trying for good at-bats, trying to help my team."
Isabella Pujols is 12 now, approaching her teenage years. Her father's progress report on her is all positive. "She is doing awesome," he said of the little girl who stole his heart.
Pujols and Deidre have three other children, Sofia, Alberto and Ezra. "My wife is mom and dad to the kids at the same time with me on the road for half the season," the slugger said. "She is so patient with them. I am blessed to have her. She is a special person in my life."
And so is Isabella.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.