07/13/09 3:50 PM ET
Spotlight on Pujols at Home Run Derby
In 'Albert's town,' Cardinals slugger is favored in contest
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Heading into Monday night's State Farm Home Run Derby, even the seven other contestants in the field were willing to admit that Albert Pujols will be the man to watch and the man to beat when the lights come on and the fat pitches sail over the heart of the plate.
Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who leads the Major Leagues in home runs with 32, is serving as a sort of hometown hospitality host for the weekend full of festivities, and he was the center of the conversation once again at the midday news conference for the Derby.
"It's to enjoy, have fun," Pujols said when asked about the purpose of the Derby. "Yes, like you say, I've been the centerpiece [of the weekend], but I don't let that get in my head. I'm going to go out there and try to have fun in the Home Run Derby tonight and the game tomorrow, and hopefully we can put on a great show for the fans tonight and the viewers."
Pujols will be expected to win the Derby not only by just about everyone in Busch Stadium, but seemingly by Nelson Cruz, Brandon Inge, Carlos Pena, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Howard, too.
"Growing up here and being a Cardinals fan when I was younger, the one thing about the fans here, obviously they love their teams, but the one thing I can say about the fans here is that they appreciate good players," Howard said.
"If someone were to knock Albert off tonight, I think that the fans would obviously be cool with that. They would appreciate that because they know the kind of level that Albert is at, and for someone to beat him here in St. Louis, they would be very appreciative of that."
Pujols smiled and cracked, "He says that because he hits 10 home runs every time he's here."
Gonzalez echoed the sentiments of quite a few Derby fans when he added, "I think the best thing to do is just [bet on] Albert and you'll be fine."
Two young people will get that chance Monday night, and that also was a topic of discussion in the news conference.
When Pujols steps on the field, he'll be joined by a contestant, Mark Weinberger from Philadelphia, and Mark will point to left field, right field or center field, and Pujols will get one swing to hit the "called shot." If Pujols hits it where Weinberger pointed, Weinberger will win a prize package that includes a new car and a 65-inch flat-screen TV.
Is that even more hype to heap on Pujols' already heavy shoulders?
"Well, yeah, there is pressure," Pujols said. "There's only one swing that you take. I guess you need to be lucky. Hopefully he [doesn't] point to right field. But it's great. I'm glad to be a part of that. It's a great cause, and hopefully I can make that happen tonight. It's awesome and I'm looking forward to it."
So are the rest of the contestants, who seemingly don't buy into the rumor that participating in the Derby can wreak havoc on a player's swing.
Pena, who's leading the American League in homers this year with 24, had a unique outlook on that topic.
"I just don't think that there is [anything] to ruin in my swing, really," he said to laughter. "So I'm just going to go out there and be myself. I guess I've got enough of a loop that it can't get any worse. I'm just going to stay with it. And to me, it's just all about the fun, and obviously, this is a great cause, so I'm just going to enjoy myself as much as possible."
The cause Pena was referring to is the Boys & Girls Clubs. Once again, eight local Boys & Girls Club members were paired with a Derby participant to win a donation toward a new teen center. The club member paired with the winner gets a $50,000 donation for his or her Boys & Girls Clubs, while the remaining children each will receive a $10,000 donation for their respective clubs. Also, four local Boys & Girls Club members will serve as Derby shaggers.
The Derby also includes the "Gold Ball" charitable component, instituted in 2005, in which Rawlings, the official supplier of baseballs to Major League Baseball, has created a specially designed gold baseball that will be used in every round when a player is down to his final out. For every home run hit by a Derby participant after his ninth out, Major League Baseball and State Farm will combine to donate $17,000 (representing State Farm's 17,000 agents) to Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
For Howard, a native of nearby Wildwood, Mo., who attended Missouri State University, it meant a lot that he was paired with a boy from Springfield, Mo.
"That's got an even more special meaning," Howard said. "Being here in the first place and now being teamed up with somebody who is from the same town that I went to school at, it just makes it that much more special. And like I said before, I'm going to go out here and try to have fun and just enjoy myself."
The players will enjoy themselves even more because they brought along hand-picked batting-practice pitchers. Everyone except Pujols, whose personal pitcher, Dave McKay, decided to take a vacation instead.
"I didn't bring anybody," he said to more laughter. "My guy decided to take four days off. ... But I told him that I would love for him to be here tonight. He can't make it. He went to Arizona. So I actually borrowed somebody from Pittsburgh, the bullpen coach, who is going to throw for me. I'm going to try to get used to him, and hopefully he can throw the ball down the middle and I can put good swings on it."
Fielder said he would just try to have fun and help the fans have fun at the Derby and in Tuesday night's 80th All-Star Game, where he and Howard and Gonzalez, all being first basemen, might not get to play much for one obvious reason.
"This is Albert's town," Fielder said.
"So if he needs to play the whole game, I would have no problem with that."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.