I cheered for Brett Favre for a long time. I loved his grit, his competitive spirit and the joy he demonstrated as he played football. I even cheered for him as he retired and unretired fourteen times. But he made it difficult to cheer for him as stories of his boorish behavior in his year as the Jets quarterback came to light. Sexual harassment. Sexting. Brett Favre is evidently a hero with feet of clay.
Baseball’s 1998 was a year of glory. Not only did the Yankees win more games than any other team ever has, but the home run derby between Mark McGwire (my hero) and Sammy Sosa (not so much) captivated the nation. We thought we were witnessing something heroic and historic. No, we were witnessing the effects of performance enhancing drugs on baseball. Mark McGwire had feet of clay.
I sat with my son one day watching as Roger Clemens pitched, and I told him, “you may be witnessing the best pitcher who ever picked up a baseball.” I said the same thing watching Barry Bonds hit in the early part of this new millenium. Alas, Roger and Barry have demonstrated that their feet, too, are made of clay.
I watched Tiger Woods win the third of his US Amateur championships and I was amazed at both his talent and his mental toughness. And I cheered for him at every major as he racked up win after win. There was no one like him. Then, it all came tumbling down. We found that not only does he have feet of clay, but is a morally-challenged womanizer.
Ben Roethlisberger. Michael Vick. Plaxico Burress. Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz. The list of sports heroes who have demonstrated moral, spiritual, ethical, even legal lapses is long. Evidently, there is a clay foot epidemic throughout the sports world.
Then, there is Albert Pujols.
The first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals has put up numbers in his first ten years that no one else in baseball has ever matched. Not Babe Ruth. Not Lou Gehrig. Not Willie Mays. Not Mickey Mantle. (Sorry for the heavy Yankee influence there, but we are talking about all-time greats!) A decade into his career, the term “greatest ever” is beginning to be thrown around. If he quit today, he would almost certainly be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s only 31.
And he seems to have character to match his talent. He is a solid Christian witness who has walked the walk he talked publicly. He has devoted himself not only to baseball excellence but to Christian ministry and charitable service. He has been involved in no major scandals.
Of course, when someone seems to be too good to be true, people try to tear him down. There was a rumor circulated just before the release of the Mitchell Report (on PEDs in baseball) that his name would be included on the list of cheaters and many sports journalists jumped on that with glee. The Report came out and the rumor proved false. He’s had a couple of dustups with players and coaches that have made the news. His demeanor has sometimes been challenged. Right now, he is playing the last season of his contract and some in St. Louis are scandalized by the fact that he is going to consider free agency and a possible move out of the town that venerates him so much. One St. Louis Cardinals blogger went so far as to brand him a “religious fraud” for even considering free agency.
Pujols: More than the Game, by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth
Who is the real Albert Pujols? That question is answered in “Pujols: More than the Game” a new book from Thomas Nelson publishers by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth. Scott Lamb is director of research for the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Tim Ellsworth is director of news and media relations at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and an infrequent but excellent blogger. The book is available at Amazon and at CBD.
Many sports biographies turn out to be little more than hagiographies, unrealistic paeons of praise to sporting gods. This book takes a more realistic tack. The authors are fans of Albert Pujols, certainly, but they do not shy away from examining controversies and criticism. Lamb and Ellsworth track the moving journey Pujols took from the poverty of the Dominican Republic, to high school in Kansas City, to community college, the draft and Major League immortality. It also tracks his spiritual journey from religious lostness to vibrant Christian witness and passionate charitable work. It is a stirring story. The reader can decide for himself what is most moving, but I noted the following things.
1) I knew very little about Pujols’ pre-stardom story. He just seemed to explode onto the scene in 2001. I assumed that he was always a star in the making. But while he was a good high school player in Kansas City (after his family moved from the Dominican) who hit home runs they are still talking about there, he got little attention from scouts or college programs. He played at a community college and excelled but was an afterthought on draft day, taken by St. Louis in the 13th round. Think of that. Three hundred players were taken on draft day before Albert Pujols! But once he got invited to major league spring training camp, he became a star almost overnight.
2) Lamb and Ellsworth give us an idea of where Albert’s greatness comes from. He realizes that there is a level of God-given talent that not everyone has. I never did. Albert sees baseball as a calling from God, a means to a greater end. He is also a diligent worker who pours everything he has into his craft. There is also an intensity to his focus that is often seen by others as surliness. That combination is a key to his success – natural talent viewed with humility, a diligent work ethic and mental intensity. I could never be the center fielder for the Yankees, no matter how much I want it. But I can find God’s call on my life and pursue it with diligence and intensity.
3) Albert Pujols married well. Diedre was a single mother of a Downs syndrome child. At the birth of her child, she repented and drew near to the Lord. Albert met her and they fell in love. She was the one who brought him into contact with the people who brought him to the Lord, and has been his companion in spiritual growth and partner in the charitable foundation. Who knows what Albert would be if he had not met and married Dee Dee, but she has been a formative influence in his life.
4) Albert, as great as he is, seems to be a very humble man. It is not that he denies his talent or downgrades his own abilities. He realizes that God gave him abilities that most never receive. His humility is seen in the fact that his life is not about Albert Pujols. He is not a trash-talking, self-aggrandizing athlete as so many today are. He is about Jesus and he is about serving others in Jesus’ name. This comes through clearly. He has used his baseball as a means to serve the Lord. Humility is not seen in running oneself down, but in serving something greater – the cause of Christ. The title of the book reveals the thesis. For Albert Pujols, life is about more than himself and his talents. More than the game. It’s about Jesus. With whatever failings he might have, that truly seems to be the course of his life.
If you are a Cardinals fan, you simply must buy this book. If you are a baseball fan, or a sports fan, you should buy this book and read about a man with immense talent who is doing it the right way. Any follower of Jesus Christ will be inspired by the way that Pujols uses his abilities to serve the cause of Christ. It is a book worth reading.
About the worst thing I can say about Albert Pujols is the fact that he does not play for the New York Yankees. Maybe we will find a way to correct that!