A reminder that suspicions about Albert Pujols’ age remain, ten years after he first became a major leaguer.
Even before St. Louis Cardinals superstar first baseman Albert Pujols rocketed into national baseball prominence in 2001, questions ebbed and flowed about his age. Was he really born in January 1980 or was it earlier?
Now that as much as $300 million may be riding on his upcoming age 32-41 decade, the issue is slipping back into the forefront via the national media, albeit through the usual side door.
ESPN’s Rob Neyer most recently raised the subject via his very first answer in a Tuesday managed chat session, but as is customary in rumor reporting, the writer did not identify those whispering into his ear.
“Look, I’m going to say this now and maybe never again in this space, but … There are still some reasonably intelligent people with reasonable doubts about Pujols’ age. Just for the sake of argument, if he’s actually 33 or 34 would you give him eight years? Nine years? Ten?,” Neyer asked his worldwide audience.
It is only natural for some to wonder. After all, a number of players from the Dominican Republic have been caught with falsified ages and/or identifications. Perhaps the most recent high-profile example is infielder Miguel Tejada, who aged two years, ironically as the result of a 2008 ESPN investigation.
Prior to becoming the New York Mets’ new general manager earlier this winter, Sandy Alderson had been assigned to the Dominican by Major League Baseball specifically to try to stem the rising tide of age and identify fraud cases.
Pujols’ situation is a bit different in that he first came to the US as a teenager, at the age of 16. Before leaving the Dominican, he had been given a look by both the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s, but was not signed. After a brief stop in New York, Pujols and his family moved to the Kansas City area, where he played two seasons of high school ball and one in community college before becoming a professional.
Back as early as the summer of 2003, even before Pujols signed his current eight-year contract that has one year remaining, there were tough questions – and strong reactions – about his alleged age.
Sports Illustrated ran a piece in July 2003 in which Pujols’ former coach Marty Kilgore of Maple Woods Community College lashed out at the accusations.
“Anything people want to check, go back to the Dominican Republic and pull what they can pull,” says Kilgore, who remains a close friend of Pujols’. “All I know is I’ve seen all the green cards and birth certificates — and his word is good enough for me.
“I’ve been dealing with this ever since he got here. You had parents and kids complaining, questioning his age. Jealousy. Because we got a big strong kid that can do something. He’s got an accent — they don’t understand him. Hell, nobody wanted him. Everybody wanted to hold him down. They still want to make an excuse for this guy being as great as he is.
“One of the greatest baseball players ever to put on a jockstrap and they don’t want to buy into it. What they don’t get is Albert’s life is so simple. He loves his wife [Deidre] and baseball. He doesn’t get sidetracked. If this kid stays healthy, in 15 years he can tell them all to go kiss his butt. Screw his age.”
Since then, exactly half of those 15 years, or 7 ½ years, have elapsed. Back to 2003…
Kilgore staunchly vouches for Pujols’ 23 candles.
“I mean 23 or 25, what difference does it make? But the fact is he’s 23,” says Kilgore. “What ticks me off is it’s a character issue. He takes it that way and I take it that way. This is a personal slam on what he says.”
Pujols’ high school coach, Dave Fry, and Phil Caldarella, a school district official and summer league coach, agree.
“I was around him every day at the school,” Caldarella says. “He may look like a man, but he was just a kid.”
Could these educators have been wrong? Could they have been duped? Were they not motivated to ask the tough questions?
Could Pujols have subsequently eluded post-9/11 crackdowns on foreigners’ paperwork? (He became a US citizen in 2007.)
With the reputations of so many sports heroes having been tarnished or destroyed, are people hopelessly conditioned to assume guilt before innocence?
Perhaps, but after ten years during which Pujols has had the highest possible visibility as baseball’s best player and given the segment of our society that elevates those who bring others down, by now would not have someone unearthed even a shred of evidence to validate the suspicions?
With the Cardinals and Pujols’ representatives getting into very serious, potentially record-breaking territory with the money in his new contract, wouldn’t Major League Baseball and the Cardinals especially, who have so much riding on this, have checked out Pujols’ background in every way imaginable?
Despite this, the unsubstantiated whispers continue, just as they first surfaced over a decade ago.