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He ranks as top Card

It's not easy to deal with Pujols at plate

Let's start with the only, which probably will be just the first of many onlys Albert Pujols carries with him as he barrels down the express E-ZPass lane to Cooperstown.

Four years into his major league career, the 24-year-old Cardinals first baseman has hit 160 home runs, and within that 40-homer-a-year average is the simple and astounding fact that no one else in big league history ever has hit 30 home runs in each of his first four seasons.

Not Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth. Not Mark McGwire or Mel Ott. Certainly not long-ago Red Sox favorite Tony Conigliaro (second youngest to reach 100 homers). Not Ted Williams or Barry Bonds or Eddie Mathews or even the great Joe DiMaggio. For starters, no one ever has come out swinging like Pujols, who Thursday night was crowned most valuable player of the National League Championship Series, after leading the Cardinals into the World Series with an august .500 batting average (14 for 28), 4 homers, and 9 RBIs against the Astros.

With the left-field wall cowering at the thought of the 6-foot-3-inch power-hitting Pujols, the Cardinals open the World Series tonight at Fenway. The Sox can match Pujols's power and might with their own power towers, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz (the ALCS MVP) -- which could make for the greatest display of made-in-the-Dominican-Republic fireworks ever on display in the major leagues -- but there is not a hitter in the game today more feared than Pujols.

Skipper Tony La Russa, now nine years on the job in St. Louis, began to provide the context by Pujols's second year. In all his years with the White Sox (8), A's (10), and Cardinals, said La Russa, he had never had a better player, and that included Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk and Hall of Famers-to-be Rickey Henderson and McGwire.

"I watch Pujols day in and day out," LaRussa told the Rocky Mountain News last year. "The stuff this guy does . . . the quality at-bats, the pitches he does things with . . . I mean, it's up there with the great players. Now, will he keep doing it the next 12-15 years? That will be the test."

As of last season, Pujols, a 13th-round draft pick by the Redbirds in 1999, was on the payroll for the bargain-of-all-bargains sum of $900,000. But on the eve of spring training this year, the Cardinals, figuring he can keep pounding for at least these next seven years, tied up Pujols through 2010 for $100 million, an average of more than $14 million a year that made for the richest contract in the club's history.

If there is a secret to his success, says the humble, soft-spoken Pujols, it is in his ability to read the pitcher -- all pitchers, lefthanders and righthanders, flamethrowers and knuckleballers. A relentless worker, who makes a habit of slipping down the clubhouse runway between at-bats to study his latest hacks on videotape, he is equally relentless in talking about his faith in God, his devotion to his family (wife and two children), and his unending desire to keep his swing both tuned and on the upswing.

"People wonder how I'm able to do that," Pujols said last season, pondering the adjustments he makes in his swing. "I don't know. I can't explain -- I try to see the ball and have a plan. That's how you become a good hitter, when you tell yourself what you're doing wrong and correct it the next at-bat."

Wedged into a powerful St. Louis order in the No. 3 hole, Pujols hits behind ex-Rockie Larry Walker, a three-time NL batting champ, and cleanup hitter Scott Rolen, the former Phillie who has had back-to-back 100-plus RBI seasons with the Cardinals. All in all, a formidable if not terrorizing blend of power and precision in the 2-3-4 spots that helped the Cardinals rattle off a major league-high 105 wins this season.

The Cardinals were trailing, 2-1, in Game 7 against the Astros Thursday night when Pujols came to the plate in the sixth inning with two outs and Roger Cedeno on third base. Roger Clemens got ahead in the count, 1 and 2, only to see Pujols lash his next offering into left for a tying double. Next up, Rolen hammered a two-run homer to left, completing the back-to-back lightning strikes that sent the Cardinals back to the World Series for the first time since 1987.

"It's every little boy's dream," said a beaming Pujols as he collected his MVP honors. "I'm glad to have won the MVP, but that trophy is going to stay right in this room -- because everybody here is MVP."

"Terrific hitter," said Astros manager Phil Garner, both lamenting and lauding the destruction done over the series by Pujols. "What makes their lineup so tough is there are other guys in the lineup that can beat you, too."

That little boy dream began for Pujols when he 5 years old. He grew up dirt poor in Santo Domingo, in what has now become nearly a cliche in a Dominican-to-riches tale of big league wealth and success, his story nearly identical to those told by fellow Dominican stars Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Miguel Tejada, Pedro "Under the Mango Tree" Martinez, and others.

The youngest of 12 children, Pujols by his early-teenage years was a regular visitor/auditioner at the various Dominican-based academies sponsored by big league clubs. But while he was promising in both size and enthusiasm, his skill level didn't convince anyone that his learning curve could get him to the Show. The Marlins cut him. Ditto for the A's. Seattle had an inkling of what might be, offered Pujols a deal, but by then family plans already had him packing for the chance of a better life in the United States.

Following a short stay in New York -- where, legend has it, the 16-year-old Pujols witnessed a murder in the streets -- the family picked up and moved to Independence, Mo., home to a small Dominican enclave that included some Pujols relatives. Unable to speak English, he enrolled as a sophomore at nearby Fort Osage High School, where his cousin, Wilfredo Pujols, eagerly delivered him to the doorstep of head baseball coach Dave Fry.

See you in February for tryouts, said Fry, who years later recalled that he didn't give the introduction a second thought until he arrived at the gym one day to hear the constant thump, thump, thump of Jose Alberto Pujols smashing the ball.

"Gee, boy, what have we got here?" Fry recalled for the Washington Post last year. "Well, I mean, he was a man among boys."

Two years of high school ball led Pujols to Maple Woods Community College in nearby Kansas City. Despite all his power and success, including a .461 batting average as a freshman shorstop, he wasn't selected until the 13th round, more than 360 picks into the '99 draft. Ultimately, by the spring of 2000, he signed for $10,000 and all the promise to be had in a ticket to Peoria, Ill. Less than 12 months later, he was a mainstay in the St. Louis lineup, named the NL's Rookie of the Year with a .329 batting average, 37 homers, and 130 RBIs.

"Where I came from, you can't forget how you were brought up," Pujols said earlier this year. "You draw from that. If you slip away from it, you get too comfortable. I can't let that happen."

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