Pujols: On Leadership in Adversity

Rex Duncan's variation on the theme.

First and foremost, I hope you will have read Brian Walton's solid article on Albert Pujols' curious base-running habits. It's tough to criticize Pujols. He is the Cardinal equivalent of a super-hero. A perennial offensive threat of the highest order, a potential Gold Glover at first base, and a terrific citizen of St. Louis and Cardinal Nation, what's to criticize?

His base-running, perhaps, and I agree with Brian in this regard, but this was a void in leadership as well as a base-running blunder, and the leadership issue worries me as much if not more than the base-running error. If taken in isolation, the base-running error in Wednesday night's game was significant. Had Albert stopped at third and clean-up hitter Jim Edmonds driven him in, the complexion of the later innings of the game may have changed significantly.

Hypothetical? Absolutely, but what is not hypothetical is that Albert's responsibility to the team exceeds aggressive base-running. Albert has to accept that he is a role model and leader for the new players on the team, especially for guys like John Rodriguez and John Gall who are going to be more prone to rookie mistakes as they press to stay with the club. Albert must be willing to walk that very fine line between aggressive play and veteran leadership that demands fundamental baseball. Should J-Rod or Gall decide to run the stop sign from stellar third base coach Jose Oquendo and are gunned down at the plate, some of that responsibility must now fall to Pujols.

I'm reminded of a couple of antithetical examples I recently read about leadership from Stephen Ambrose's marvelous book about D-Day. One had to do with a young private who found himself isolated from his unit behind Omaha Beach. His attention was riveted by the sound of approaching armor, and sure enough, down the road came a German tank. The young private hurled himself in to a ditch under cover and nearly in to the lap of a wizened American sergeant. The petrified private desperately asked the sergeant what they should do as the tank approached. The sergeant suggested that they leave it alone and maybe it would go away, which it did. That veteran leadership prevented the young private from doing a whole host of stupid things that could have resulted in tragedy.

Another example of leadership was that of a private and a lieutenant fighting as part of a unit in the Norman hedgerows. Under direct sniper fire, the unit had been unable to advance. The private, recognizing that to show one's head would mean drawing very accurate rifle fire, stayed down. The lieutenant, insistent upon advancing directly and aggressively, crawled over the private, stuck his head out and was promptly shot. The now-leaderless squad pulled back.

Leadership in adversity requires first and foremost the ability to think clearly and correctly under pressure or, as Kipling said, to keep one's head while those about you are losing theirs. Albert's responsibility to the Cardinals demands that he corral his tremendous raw talent and apply it with wisdom born of experience. And not only his personal experience, but by effectively using the vast experience of Oquendo, inarguably one of the very best third base coaches in the game today and one already known for his own brand of aggressiveness in sending runners home. When Oquendo flashes the stop sign, one should take it as gospel. By stopping, Pujols is not only practicing good fundamental baseball, but he also communicates the need to the new players to respect Oquendo.

Albert Pujols is simply one of the most exciting, talent-laden and versatile players to hit this game in decades. His numbers as representative of his personal achievements speak for themselves. Now he must assume a new mantle, one that may or may not suit his personality. Not everyone, even one of immense talent, can be a leader. Mike Matheny, he of middling offense, is a leader by shear weight of his personal qualities. But Albert, for all the electric energy and athletic talent that flows through him as a player, must now look within himself to determine if he is both able and willing to be a leader. If he is willing, now is the time to exercise that leadership.

Brian Walton is exactly right. Pujols needs to be a thinking base-runner, and hopefully he will learn from Wednesday night's mistake. I hope, too, though that he will reflect on the greater error of failed leadership. If the Cardinals are to defend their bulging lead in the National League Central Division, they need men like Albert Pujols leading the way to the post-season.

Rex Duncan

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