Pujols had played just one year of professional baseball when he arrived at spring training for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001. Unintimidated, the 21-year-old hitting prodigy muscled his way into the starting lineup with a torrid exhibition season and embarked upon one of the most productive rookie campaigns ever. By late September he had set NL rookie records for RBIs and extra-base hits.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Pujols moved to Kansas City with his father at the age of 16. After one year of junior college, he was selected by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the June 1999 draft. He began the 2000 season at Single-A Peoria, but climbed all the way to Triple-A Memphis by September. In 133 minor-league games he batted .314 with 19 home runs and 96 RBIs, and was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year.
Blessed with a powerful arm, Pujols proved equally capable at third base, first base and the outfield. His startling batting surge not only earned him an All-Star berth, but also kept the Cardinals from falling out of contention, despite injuries to Mark McGwire and J.D. Drew. “He plays like a 30-year-old,” said manager Tony LaRussa of the club’s newfound star. By season’s end Pujols was considered to be the hands-down Rookie of the Year and even drew MVP talk as St. Louis streaked toward a playoff spot.