Tony La Russa has been managing so long that he studiously avoids superlatives about his players for fear of offending one of his stars from the past. It's commonplace for him to refer to a feat or an athlete as "tied for first."
All of that is out the window with Albert Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals' third-year star is playing so well, going 20-for-30 in one white-hot stretch with eight straight hits, La Russa simply can't help himself.
"This guy keeps maximizing his talent and keeps wanting to learn. For anybody, he sets the bar. The way he works, the way he's willing to learn, he's the best player I ever managed."
Pujols was the National League rookie of the year in 2001 after playing in Class A ball the previous year. Last year he was the MVP runner-up to Barry Bonds. Now he's leading the major leagues with a .389 average, and he's at the head of La Russa's class, in front of the likes of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson.
Pujols is among the league leaders with 51 RBIs. He's first in slugging percentage, second in extra-base hits. Last month, he was the NL player of the month after batting .345 with 10 homers and 26 RBIs.
"Every time, I try to have a good at-bat," Pujols said. "I don't try to take anything for granted or give away at-bats and that's what I want to do all year long."
Pujols also has managed to avoid being a minus in left field, despite a sprained elbow ligament that has limited his throwing. He's also been battling a sore left hamstring much of the season, though neither of the injuries have kept him from punishing pitchers on a daily basis.