ANAHEIM, Calif. – A few days ago, Albert Pujols' phone buzzed. He'd been sent a photo. He tapped the phone and there was Champ Pederson, Joc's oldest brother. Champ was holding up a jersey – Los Angeles Angels, No. 5, PUJOLS across the back, signed by Pujols himself – and wearing a great big smile.
Pujols had met the young man about a week before at a screening for a movie called "Where Hope Grows." It's about baseball, but mostly it's about Down syndrome.
Isabella Pujols, Albert's oldest child, has Down syndrome. So does Champ.
"Sometimes I have to tell her to do something two or three times," he said. "But sometimes people need to tell me two or three times."
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Pujols and Joc Pederson had not met before March 16, the night of the screening in Phoenix. They both play professional baseball and share a market, and people in the business tend to be acquainted. But Pujols is 35, three MVPs and 520 home runs into this and headed for the Hall of Fame, while Pederson is 22, has 28 days of service time and still hasn't been able to tell his parents for sure if they should fly down from Palo Alto, Calif., for Monday's season opener at Dodger Stadium.
So it was something of a surprise that night when Pujols worked his way through the crowd, found the Pedersons – father Stu, mother Shelly, Joc and Champ – and introduced himself. Champ was beside himself.
"You're my favorite player," he said, well within earshot of Joc.
"Champ," Shelly said, "your brother…"
"Nope," Champ said. "Albert Pujols."
He asked for a jersey.
"They're pretty special kids," he said.
The Pedersons knew The Pujols Foundation, knew the work it did for people – children in particular – with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Champ did too. From that, they figured Pujols must be a good man. Champ is a pretty good judge of these things.
"Champ's been wanting to meet him for a long time," Joc said.
Funny when your eyes are open, your heart too, what comes of it. Three days later, the Dodgers hosted the Angels at Camelback Ranch. Pujols was at first base. Pederson subbed into the game as a pinch-runner at first.
"I have Champ's jersey," Pujols told him. "I'll be sure it gets to you."
It was in a box, on the bus, before the Angels left for Tempe.
"I was kind of shocked," Joc said. "A lot of people say stuff and don't follow through."
The act of signing a jersey and handing it over maybe isn't much. Not by itself. But tell Champ. Tell all the other boys and girls who attend Pujols' events. Tell the Pedersons, whose first-born son might not take that jersey off for a while. Look at the photo, look at Champ's ear-to-ear happiness, and ask the Pedersons if a casual meeting, a pass of a Sharpie and a small emotional investment is or isn't much.
So on a Thursday night at Angel Stadium, where the Dodgers and Angels met to get a sense of big-stadium lighting and to pull themselves a few innings closer to the regular season, Joc was stretching near the right-field line and Albert had finished a sprint in shallow center field. Joc caught his eye. Albert nodded. And Joc trotted to him. They hugged, had a short conversation, hugged again and returned to their game preparation.
There'd be no hard reason for the veteran Pujols and the budding Pederson to know what makes the other what. Or why. Pederson, of course, has followed Pujols' career and admired him as a ballplayer. Pujols had heard of Pederson, knew he played this winter in Pujols' native Dominican Republic, and introduced himself at a movie. That's it.
The bond is Isabella. And it's Champ. And it's everybody like them who has to work a little harder to get through the day, whose challenges are slightly larger than most, but who see an awful lot of good out there. Pujols helped raised Isabella. Pederson helped raise Champ. They know that about each other.
"I feel like I've almost known Joc for a very long time because of that," Pujols said. "These kids have special needs. But I'm sure he doesn't look at it like that. That's his brother. I don't look at my daughter and say, 'Oh, she has Down syndrome.' She's my daughter. She's one of my five kids."
Joc's mother, Shelly, sent him a video of Champ opening the box and discovering the jersey inside. Of Albert, she told Joc, "I like that he's about that." Because they're about that. too. And maybe one day Joc will be a great baseball player, and one day he'll be Champ's favorite player (though it would appear that'll take some doing), and he'll still be about that, just like Albert Pujols is.
"It's a mutual sense of respect, I think," Joc said. "You've been through some of the same things he's been through."
He seemed to think it over again, the life they've all had with Champ, and the chance meeting with the one guy Champ really wanted to meet, and then Champ and that jersey. He smiled.
"It's pretty cool," Joc said.
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