November 12, 2001: Albert Pujols is unanimous Rookie of the Year selection

At spring training, Tony La Russa found that he had no choice – he had to put Albert Pujols in the lineup. By the end of the season, voters saw the same – and unanimously named him the 2001 National League Rookie of the Year.

Pujols received all 32 votes (two voters from each National League city) after a rookie season in which he batted .329 with 37 home runs, 112 runs scored, and a rookie record 130 RBIs. Only four rookies in baseball history had hit better than .300 with more than 30 homers, 100 runs scored, and 100 RBIs.[1]

“St. Louis is a great franchise with great performances and it would be interesting to rank his season with the great ones the franchise has had,” manager Tony La Russa said.[2]

Pujols’ professional career got off to a rocky start when they drafted him in the 13th round out of Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods in 1999. The 19-year-old Pujols was disappointed to be selected so late after batting .466 with 22 homers and 76 RBIs in 193 at-bats that season.[3]

“I was crying like crazy,” Pujols said. “I felt like I did so much and I didn’t get selected in the draft where I knew I could go. I felt all the work I did hadn’t paid off.”[4]

That didn’t mean Pujols was ready to stop working. He opened the 2000 season in Class A Peoria, where he hit .324 with 17 homers and 84 RBIs in 395 at-bats before he was promoted to High-A Potomac. Pujols played 21 games in Potomac and his final three games of the season in Triple-A.

The following spring, Pujols was expected to return to Triple-A, but his spring training at-bats made it clear he was ready for the majors. Familiar with countless prospects who flamed out once they were challenged, La Russa set out to test the rookie.

“I challenged Albert more than any young player I had ever coached,” La Russa wrote in One Last Strike in 2012. “The challenges I gave Albert were tough enough that some of our staff and veteran players felt I was looking to make him fail to justify sending him out.”[5]

One moment in particular stood out to La Russa: a spring training game against the Expos and right-hander Javier Vasquez, who went on to win 16 games that season.

“I put Albert in the cleanup spot to see what he would do,” La Russa wrote. “First time up, he flails at a Vazquez slider well off the plate—looking just terrible—and I think, Aha. Got you. In my mind, Albert needs some additional seasoning, he has to work on that small thing—seeing the ball and being better disciplined at the plate. Next time up, Vazquez throws him that same slider and Albert hits a bullet to right-center. I think, Holy crap, what an adjustment.”[6]

Pujols was so impressive that La Russa planned to find a roster spot for Pujols even before Bobby Bonilla, who had been signed during the offseason to play first base, third base, and the outfield, injured his hamstring.[7]

“By the time we got to the last week (in the spring), his playing time increased,” La Russa said. “He had played almost every day and there was no way you could tell your club you’re taking the best 25 players if Pujols wasn’t one of them. If you don’t, your club doesn’t think you’re trying to win. You had to take the best player in spring training.”[8]

Despite his strong spring, Pujols went just 1-for-9 in the Cardinals’ season-opening series against the Rockies at Coors Field. Veterans like Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds helped keep the 20-year-old centered.

“At first, I thought ‘I don’t know if I’m ready,’” Pujols said, “but some of my teammates like Mark and Jimmy said, ‘Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just go have fun. Just think of it as the minor leagues.’”[9]

On April 6, Pujols hit his first major league home run, a two-run shot that proved his biggest blast in a three-hit, three-RBI day. In the next game, Pujols went 2-for-4 with a three-run double and three RBIs to raise his season average to .333.

“He sent a real message,” La Russa said. “Phoenix was the first shot he fired, but he had a lot more to do and he did it.”[10]

Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt finished second in the Rookie of the Year race with 25 second-place votes and seven third-place votes. Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins placed third with seven second-place votes and 23 third-place votes. Cardinals pitcher Bud Smith and Reds outfielder Adam Dunn each received one third-place vote apiece.

“There was pretty good competition with Jimmy Rollins and Roy Oswalt,” Pujols said. “It was a blessed year. This is a pretty good honor and you only get it one year.”[11]

Said La Russa, “There are a lot of impressive things about (Pujols) winning the award. One is the legitimate competition with the shortstop in Philadelphia and the pitcher in Houston, but I don’t know how he could have helped but be unanimous.”[12]

Pujols was the ninth player in National League history to be a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection, following Frank Robinson (1956), Orlando Cepeda (1958), Willie McCovey (1959), Vince Coleman (1985), Benito Santiago (1987), Mike Piazza (1993), Raul Mondesi (1994), and Scott Rolen (1997).[13]

“I just put my numbers out there and (the writers) took care of it,” Pujols said.[14]

Along the way, Pujols moved all around the diamond, appearing in 55 games at third base, 42 at first base, and 39 apiece in left and right field.

“That makes it even more impressive what he did this year,” Walt Jocketty said. “He played positions he’d never played before. He’d always been a third baseman. To do what he did and play all those positions is remarkable.”[15]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper clipping declaring Albert Pujols the NL Rookie of the Year.

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[1] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[3] Albert Pujols Bio, NJCAA Region 16, https://njcaaregion16.org/Hall_of_Fame/Albert_Pujols.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[5] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android version, Retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 63.

[6] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android version, Retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 64.

[7] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android version, Retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 64.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[13] Associated Press, “Suzuki, Pujols are top rookies in a landslide,” Sacramento Bee, November 13, 2001.

[14] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

[15] Rick Hummel, “Pujols is NL’s top rookie,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2001.

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