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Pujols flicks away pain like a hanging curve

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

JUPITER, Fla. – Albert Pujols walks into the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse with Ace bandages wrapped around nearly his entire torso, pecs to pelvis. He eases into a seat and spoons yogurt into his mouth. He uses his hands to help him stand and meanders over to his locker, where trainer Barry Weinberg awaits. It's 8:03 a.m.

Pujols should give Weinberg a promise ring, if not a full-blown platinum band, for all the time they spend together. Plantar fasciitis, lingering hamstring trouble, a strained ligament in his throwing elbow – Pujols, at 28 years old, is a walking cornucopia of injuries and ailments, and Tuesday, not even two weeks into spring training, he complained to Weinberg of general discomfort.

"Take it light," Weinberg said. "I want you to stay the course."

"I was sore," Pujols said. "I won't do that again."

Publicly, Pujols will say no such thing. His adamancy that nagging injuries do not concern him borders on stubbornness, even though a healthy dose of rest and surgery would absolve him of any worries. It's the right time, too, as the Cardinals prepare for a season in which they could begin to ease some of their prospects into the major leagues.

Such a decision, however, would present as a weakness to Pujols, and he abhors nothing more, evident in his complete lack of willingness to credit pitchers. Remember Game 1 of the 2006 NLCS? Tom Glavine threw six shutout innings. Pujols said he "wasn't good at all."

Pujols' personality vacillates by the minute, from charming to downright rude, and he takes the latter tack with any inquiry about his injuries: "It's not a big deal."

Press further and this: "Why do you keep talking about the dang elbow?"

For one, Pujols is probably the greatest pure hitter of his generation and, when healthy, gives Alex Rodriguez a good run for the best-player-in-baseball mantle. Last year, when he played through the pain, Pujols put up the worst power numbers of his career. The Cardinals, with a serious injury sidelining him, could very well approach triple-digit losses.

So … yeah, the dang elbow is kind of important, as are all of Pujols' carpals, tarsals and other various bits and pieces. If the Cardinals care to contend in the future, they need a healthy Pujols, not one who turns into a jalopy before his 30th birthday.

Now, this isn't to say that will happen. But why chance it with someone of Pujols' caliber? Pujols' single-mindedness can get in the way of his better judgment, and a strong-minded authority figure would step in and demand rest or, if necessary, surgery.

"I just think there's a category of guys that deal with feeling less than their best and just play through it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Other guys it takes something away from them, whether it's mentally or actually physically. The word that's most commonly used to define it is toughness. And he's proven he's a very tough character."

To question that would be a mistake. Pujols tolerates pain as though his blood pumps lidocaine to his extremities, dulling the sensations. Whatever he does, it works, as in seven seasons he has a career batting average of .332, an on-base-plus-slugging of 1.040, 282 home runs, more than 800 RBIs and runs and a Gold Glove at first base.

Maybe, then, Pujols is simply a freak, able to flick away discomfort like a mosquito.

"There's a line, a delineation you make," La Russa said. "You can be tough and stupid.

"There is toughness but good sense, and Albert definitely has demonstrated toughness and good sense. I trust him."

To a degree, at least. La Russa has said he will rest Pujols more this season. Pujols, reminded of this decree, said: "When those days come, we'll talk."

Even though the Chicago Cubs own the NL Central title and the Milwaukee Brewers teem with talent and the Cincinnati Reds are a break or two away from contending, the Cardinals do offer some intrigue with how La Russa will handle Pujols.

Remember, he managed the Oakland A's teams overrun with more needles than a hospital. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire allegedly abused steroids, and La Russa did nothing about it. Putting stars in their place isn't necessarily his cup of Earl Grey.

So on Pujols will march, fazed more by questions about his health than his health itself. He'll do so with defiance and a motivation, two of the things that make Pujols so great. And he'll do it knowing full well that march could soon turn into a limp.