Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Of Love

Today is Labor Day...For ordinary workers like me, it's a day off. For elite athletes, it's the beginning of the fall season of conditioning. A new start after a long summer season.

First, let's define the term elite athlete. The simplest explanation of an elite athlete is any person that plays at or aspires to play at a higher level than any one else his age.

How does one become that elite athlete? Well, unless you are one of those genetic freaks of nature, it's not a simple task to become elite status. The only way to become an elite athlete is to have a work ethic that is at a higher level than any one athlete you play or compete with.

Let's go one step further. Being an elite athlete is not just competing and working out at a higher level than any other's competing, working out and playing at a higher level than any one else your age that is also competing an working out at a higher level...and doing so year round. It's not baseball season you say? Sorry, it doesn't work that way in the elite world.

Let's use Michael Phelps as an example of what it takes to become an elite athlete. Michael was identified as special at an early age by his coach. Yes, he won a lot of at an early age, at local recreational meets, but most great coaches that recognize this type of talent aren't not satisfied with local accolades. They seek out the bigger picture to see what the realities of his talents are on a bigger stage. The stages got bigger, the workouts got tougher, and Michael Phelps got better and better...he also worked harder and harder until, on the biggest stage of all, he became the greatest athlete this generation or any others for that matter will ever witness.

Let it be known that Michael Phelps, is not a natural athlete. He is a great athlete that has a natural work ethic and did so year round. That's the only way the great athletes become great. In baseball, A-Rod takes up to 1000 swings a day and hundreds of ground balls...from January to December. Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Josh Hamilton do the same.

One of the greatest players of our generation is Albert Pujols. Albert doesn’t consider himself a classic slugger. He says he’s a line-drive hitter who has the ability to lift the ball. For him, home runs are almost a happy accident, not a planned result.

Much of Albert’s success is derived from his ability to hit to all fields. Thanks to near perfect balance...he has amazing plate coverage, and can drive pitches to left, center and right with equal effectiveness. Albert also possesses some of the quickest hands in the game. His power is a combination of his strength below his waist and the speed with which he whips the bat through the strike zone.

Almost obsessive preparation is one of Albert’s assets, too. He devotes several hours each and every day to situational hitting, while maintaining the flawless consistency of his swing. Albert approaches every at-bat with a clear idea of what a pitcher will throw him and how he will react. His discipline at the plate is evidenced by the fact that his strikeout totals continue to drop, while his walks increase.

Albert is among the most respected players in baseball. Teammates and coaches appreciate—and feed off—his commitment to hard work and his dedication to winning. He also earns high marks for working as hard on his defense as his offense, winning his first Gold Glove in 2006. And though he’s slow, he has learned to be a good base runner.

Now there's no doubt that Albert is a natural athlete, but don't think for a moment that he would have had the kind of success he has had without a natural work ethic...

From the time he could walk, Albert showed his father’s passion for baseball. The elder Pujols, a great pitcher in his day, was known throughout the Dominican Republic. By Albert's sixth birthday, the youngster was playing everyday on the dusty fields near his Domincan Republic home. Though he didn’t have any one favorite pro team or player, Albert dreamed of a career in the majors. His favorite player was Julio Franco.

In the early 1990s, members of the Pujols family began migrating to the U.S. The family settled on Independence, Missouri. They took up residence in a small house that seemed like a mansion compared to their Santo Domingo digs. Albert attended his first big-league game not long after, watching the Kansas City Royals host the then California Angels.

Though he knew very little English, Albert made the transition to U.S. culture easily. Baseball was key to this adjustment. In the summers, he starred at shortstop in American Legion ball. Thanks to his soft hands and strong arm, Albert was a natural at the position. At 6-3 with power to spare, he was also a terror at the plate.

Albert entered Fort Osage High School as a sophomore, a year behind others his age because he only spoke Spanish. He and his cousins were the only Dominicans in the school. Assigned a tutor named Portia Stanke, Albert picked up English quickly. He became attuned to the rhythm of American teenagers, hanging out on weekends with his buddies in basement dens and shopping malls.

A naturally gifted student, Albert had extra motivation, figuring that the sooner he conquered the language barrier, the sooner he would make it to the big leagues.

Baseball dominated just about every part of Albert’s life. He worked out and practiced whenever and wherever he could, establishing a personal dedication to the game that still sets him apart from his peers. Albert had never worked at being a better player before going to Fort Osage. When he saw how quickly the results came, he was hooked.

Stanke remembers Albert being fiercely proud—though not cocky—of his spot on the Fort Osage varsity. On game days he wore his uniform to school. Modesty, however, kept him from bragging about his performance on the field.

In his first season, Albert hit better than .500 with 11 home runs. Fort Osage coach David Fry couldn’t believe his good fortune. The teenager was the hardest worker—and swinger—on the team. Fry remembers one mammoth shot Albert launched at Liberty High School that landed on top of a 25-foot high air conditioning unit some 450 feet from home plate.

The following year, opponents avoided Albert like the plague, offering little in the way of hittable pitches. Still, despite 55 walks in 88 at-bats, he managed to belt eight homers, lead Fort Osage to the state championship and earn All-State honors for the second year in a row.

By his junior year in high school, Albert was attracting the attention of pro scouts. Intrigued by his work ethic, baseball acumen and undeniable talent, they advised him to leave Fort Osage and find a college that would give him better exposure. The idea wasn’t out of the question, particularly because an aggressive course load would allow Albert to graduate in January of his senior year and move right onto the college diamond. Convinced that this plan was his surest path to the majors, he spent the fall with his nose buried in his books. This is the best example of his work ethic in our opinion.

One of the few breaks he took was to appear in an All-Star Game for high schoolers in the Kansas City area. Among those in attendance was Marty Kilgore, the coach at nearby Maple Woods Community College. Kilgore was blown away by Albert’s strength and knowledge of the game. He recruited the 18-year-old for the spring of 1999.

When Albert arrived at Maple Woods, his top priority was raising his stock in the upcoming 2000 draft. Landon Brandes, one of the club's top hitters at the time, will never forget the freshman’s first batting practice session. With everyone else on the team swinging aluminum bats, Albert stepped to the plate with a wood model, then blasted several moon shots that outdistanced every other ball hit that day.

In his 1999 regular season debut for Maple Woods, Albert was even more impressive. Starting at shortstop, he smashed a grand slam off future All-Star Mark Buehrle and turned an unassisted triple play. He wound up batting .461 for the year, with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs. Come the Junior College World Series, the scouting report on Albert said it was better to put him on than pitch to him. Brandes received pretty much the same treatment, and throughout the postseason the duo’s bats were silenced with a steady diet of chin music and intentional passes.

By then, however, big-league teams had seen enough to know Albert was a prime prospect. Among the clubs interested in him, the St. Louis Cardinals had watched the hard-hitting infielder the closest. With Albert playing in their backyard, they had been able to keep a close eye on him all year long—particularly talent evaluators Dave Karaff and Mike Roberts. Gambling that they could wait out the rest of the teams in the draft, the Cards didn’t select him until the 13th round. As each round passed, Karaff—Albert’s biggest booster—thought he would lose his mind. The news was a major disappointment to Albert, who expected to go much higher. When St. Louis offered a signing bonus of just $10,000, he turned the Cardinals down.

Instead, Albert chose to play in the Jayhawk League, a Kansas circuit for college-age players, and joined the Hays Larks. Because the team was based some fours hours west of Kansas City, he moved in with his new manager and his wife, Frank and Barb Leo.

On the diamond, Albert continued to develop as a player. Like many summer circuits, the Jayhawk League prohibited the use of aluminum bats. But after his season at Maple Woods, Albert was already accustomed to hitting with lumber in his hands. In 55games, he topped the Larks in homers and batting average. Leo, however, was awed by Albert’s instincts for the sport. He approached each at-bat with a plan, was prepared for every situation he encountered on the basepaths and in the field, and spent more time picking the brains of his coaches than exploring the nightlife with friends.

At the end of the summer, the Cardinals began to appreciate what they had in Albert and upped their offer to $60,000. He accepted, then flew to Arizona for instructional fall ball. There, he batted .323 and began learning a new position, third base.

The rest is history..but the moral of this story is that Albert, who's work ethic and dedication to excellence is unprecedented, knows that this is only way to achieve greatness. Not all baseball players have the natural talent that Albert has, but even Albert would not have achieved the all wordly stats he has if he hadn't had the bigger picture in mind. The bigger picture is that hard work is the only path to greatness. So, if any of you aspiring collegiate athletes dream to be playing for your favorite college someday, if you aren't playing, working out, and dedicating countless hours to make yourself better than everyone around you at the highest level of competition around you, then your dream just may become a nightmare.

Make this Labor Day the first day a of life of Labor...a Labor of Love for the game of baseball.

RT Staff

Thanks to for the information on Albert Pujols.

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