- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

ST. LOUIS — Albert Pujols can take getting snubbed by Barry Bonds.

What he can’t take is 0-fers.

At the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star has Triple Crown numbers, leading the majors with a .368 average and ranking among the National League leaders in home runs and RBI. He was the NL player of the month for May and June, a clear indication of his dominance. He will start in left field for the National League in tonight’s All-Star Game in Chicago.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his play, though, has to do with his remarkable consistency. He never has gone without a hit for more than two starts.

Pujols’ lengthiest slump all season is 0-for-13. In the 17 games following his rare hitless games, he’s 27-for-69 with seven homers and 23 RBI.

“It’s all part of my routine,” Pujols said. “It’s not that I try harder because I didn’t get any hits or anything like that.

“You just try to stay consistent. I just try to concentrate on every at-bat.”

It’s that determination that has prompted manager Tony La Russa to label the 23-year-old Pujols, in only his third season, the best player he’s ever managed.

La Russa even took it a step further, calling Pujols — the NL rookie of the year in 2001 and the MVP runner-up to Bonds last year — the best player ever at the start of his career.

“I say Albert has been better than anybody, including Barry, for 2 years,” the manager said. “Players like Bonds, who have been great for all those years, that’s a different category, but according to historical fact neither Barry nor anybody else has had 2 years like Albert Pujols, and nobody is going to take that away from him.”

Bonds doesn’t seem impressed. In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he was somewhat critical of Pujols’ scintillating start.

Bonds said Pujols is not the next Bonds because he doesn’t have speed on the basepaths and has played several positions with the Cardinals.

He said Pujols reminded him more of Bobby Bonilla, a good but not great former teammate in Pittsburgh, and added that Pujols needs to do a lot more to prove he belongs among the game’s greats.

“If Pujols plays for a long period of time, he definitely has a chance to do some wonderful things in this game of baseball because he has the ability,” Bonds told the Chronicle. “It’s just time that dictates what happens.”

Pujols just shrugs it off. He’s not worried about proving himself to Bonds, or anybody else.

“I heard something about it, but hey, whatever he said it’s not in my mind,” Pujols said. “I don’t care what he says or what other people say, I just try to concentrate.”

At first, La Russa used Pujols at first base, third base, left field and right field, constantly shuttling him about, but he’s now settled in at left field.

La Russa said the fact Pujols was so productive while moving around only enhances his resume.

He’s the only player in major league history to hit .300 with 30 homers, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored in each of his first two seasons, and he is well on his way to making it three in a row.

“Most people would tell you they like to play one defensive position because it kind of helps their hitting,” La Russa said. “I think that’s part of why I call him the best I’ve been around.”

The lack of a long-term contract doesn’t appear to have affected Pujols’ mind-set. The Cardinals signed him to a $900,000 deal this year and he’s eligible for arbitration next spring, but the really big money is still a ways away.

Worried? Nope. Pujols batted .429 in June with eight homers and 29 RBI, and he’s always been a team-first player.

“He’s gotten clutch hit after clutch hit and after clutch hit, and he’s made clutch plays, and he’s doing it for the right reasons,” La Russa said. “He’s a guy without money and he’s starting to make a little money and he hasn’t changed.”

Pujols, who is married with two children, also doesn’t look too bad in his uniform, his manager added.

“I think he’s absolutely beautiful. If I was a woman, I’d go for him so fast it would make his head spin,” he said.

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