Albert Pujols Arrives in Jupiter by RJ McDaniel March 2, 2021 Under the low, blue-grey sky in Jupiter, the clouds rolling in low from the sea, the people crowd in the seats, white hats and dark sunglasses on, in the annual ritual of anticipation. The latest in inoffensive country-pop blaring over the speakers, the salty food spilling onto the ground — with handheld video cameras, grainy images criss-crossed by thick netting, they zoom in on the players they’re here to watch. The classic red of the jerseys is loud against the muted landscape; it makes someone like the aging slugger, whom the camera follows with interest, look even bigger and more imposing than he is. And he is, indeed, imposing, much as he has been for the last decade: the Rawlings Big Stick appearing, in his hands, to have all the heft of a piece of driftwood. He is 37 years old, with a right knee that’s gone under the knife; for now, he will not run the bases, nor take the field. He glowers, alone, waiting for his one turn at the plate. In the rest of the dugout, the bustle: the big grins, pounding gloves. Last year, they lost the pennant. This year, they should make a run for it again. Squint and you’ll see the catcher, who, during last year’s chase, sliced his finger nearly off with a hunting knife — an injury he assures everyone will not affect his ability to throw this year. Watch carefully, and you might catch a glimpse of the prospect. He doesn’t look out of his depth: he is as solid as the slugger ever was, and his demeanor betrays no trepidation. He only has one professional season under his belt; when the slugger debuted almost 15 years ago, he was only a little kid. But he is here, and with a vacancy on the hot corner, he could make the team. It’s a long shot, of course; everyone says it’s a long shot. It was a long shot for a 20-year-old in his first professional season to climb all the way to Triple-A by year’s end, too, but he did it. The chance may be small — but there’s a chance. The slugger swings — a long, belabored swing, well behind the pitch, and the umpire’s arm punches through the air. The inning is over. The music plays. *** “He was like a rock,” the team doctor says. He is talking about the prospect. Before a game was even played this spring, when players were reporting and getting their physicals done, they were talking about the prospect. There is such an incongruity between the reality of this young man and what one expects out of a player only two years out of high school, and within that incongruity is space for endless imagining. How quickly he rose in only a year; how quickly might he rise given another? It is spring, and he is with the big-league club — a chance for fans to catch a glimpse, to stoke the fires of their imaginations, before he returns, presumably, to the minors. The games don’t count, but the visions they produce can endure through entire disappointing seasons. If the slugger continues to decline, if the catcher’s near-severed finger hampers him, if they can’t get anything out of third base — they can return, whenever they want, to the low clouds of a passing winter, to a promise of what could soon be. At Roger Dean Stadium, on the final day of February, the prospect stands at the plate. He launches a batting-practice fastball clear out of the park — out of the purview, even, of the land owned by his team. The ball pounds against the window of another team’s complex. The witnesses are astonished. The prospect is not. “That was nothing,” he says. “When they turn the lights on and sell the tickets and start playing the real games, that’s when it counts.” *** Every few days, the reports come back: the prospect has homered again; the prospect was the offensive standout of yet another game. The weeks pass, and the minor-leaguers, the other young players, gradually leave the major-league camp. But not him. He stays — still, now, with only two weeks to go until the start of the season. Two weeks ago, the manager asserted that the prospect still needed some time in the minors. Now, his declarations are less sure. “As long as he’s here, he has a chance,” he says on March 18. On March 19, an update, after the prospect hits his third double in two days: “He was one of the best players on the field today. Again.” And on March 20: “Somebody asked me why he wasn’t playing more. I said, ‘If I play him more, he’s going to make the team.'” *** A few days later, with the prospect racking up more extra-base hits, as he even flashes leather in left field, saving a double with a diving catch, the manager elaborates on his previous point. “What’s the difference in reason and reality?” he says after the day’s scrimmage, answering a question with a question. “The reality is that he’s playing like hell. The reason is that he probably would continue to do so if you keep playing him. So the key is to quit playing him.” The prospect plays it cool. He says he can’t answer the question of whether he should make the team; he defers to the experience of his manager and teammates; he expects to start the season in Memphis; he credits God for the blessings of his career so far. He is just trying his best, he says, to capture people’s attention. That’s where he is, as spring wears on, as the hands on the clock turn to that moment when the lights turn on and the fans roar: between reason and reality, a place so dangerous to the order of the team, to what is expected of a player this young and inexperienced, that his manager has resorted to keeping him off the field. The realm of the imagination. With every day that passes in Jupiter, what is imagined of the prospect grows larger, brighter, impossible to ignore. Where might he go — him, and the other prospects of this spring, the tall left-hander with Cleveland, the star from across the ocean? On March 28, he launches a game-tying shot against the Braves over the scoreboard. Only a few more days, now. He remains, and remains still. The calendar flips to April; the time when it all counts approaches. What will end up being counted in that final reckoning? What is it possible to hope for? A pennant — a few pennants — a World Series, even? Three thousand hits and 600 home runs? To survive every injury — to be, 20 years later, again in red, taking the field for another spring. To defy what is reasonable, what is realistic. When it counts, it really counts. *** When the curtain rises on the 2021 season, it rises on the last year for the aging slugger. It rises on the last year of a dynasty. And it rises on the prospect, who, against all odds, made the team after all. He takes the field — not in Jupiter anymore, but in Denver, high up in the air, under the lights. And so it is marked in the records: Albert Pujols made his major league debut, April 2, 2001. There is no end date just yet. The aging slugger swings his bat. In the pale spring light, the music plays.