October 11, 2004 12:00 PM

Somewhere in St. Louis this balmy September night there are Cardinals fans crowing about their team’s clinching their division title, whooping it up at Fox & Hounds, unfurling celebratory banners at Ozzie’s sports bar—but not Albert Pujols. Instead the superslugger viewed by many as the second coming of Hank Aaron—and then some—sits at home in the comfortable St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, downloading music to his computer. He is characteristically focused, serenely oblivious to the shrieks of his daughter Isabella, 6, and son AJ, 3. “Daddy, you wear No. 5, right?” AJ (short for Albert Jose) asks him. “Yes,” says Pujols. “And you play baseball, right?” presses AJ. “Yes,” Pujols replies, explaining, “He knows. He just likes to ask and have me tell him again.”

Future generations of fathers may well be telling their kids about Albert Pujols. In just four seasons the Dominican-born Pujols (pronounced POO-holes)—the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2001 and twice runner-up to Barry Bonds as MVP—has racked up prodigious stats across the board faster than any hitter in baseball history. The quiet man with the lightning-fast hands is a big reason the Cardinals rank as arguably the best team in baseball this year—and the ones to watch in the playoffs, which start Oct. 5. “As a player he’s amazing,” says ESPN analyst Harold Reynolds, a former big leaguer. Plus, he says, “my wife thinks he’s the sexiest man in baseball—I’ll have to set her straight.”

The 6’3″, 225-lb. first baseman is fiercely dedicated to his craft: He works out more than two hours a day even during the off-season and often spends thrice-daily sessions in the batting cage refining his swing. And the born-again Christian, 24, is a bona fide family man, who enjoys reading to the kids, pitching to them in the backyard and taking them to a Chuck E. Cheese’s. Both Albert and his wife, Deidre, are active in the local Down syndrome association—Isabella (known as Bella) suffers from the condition. “He’s got a maturity as a husband and father that he brings to his professional life,” says Cards’ manager Tony La Russa. “He’s very driven.”

The dream Pujols chases is the one that eluded his father, Bienvenido, a talented pitcher who only made it to the Dominican minor leagues. Growing up poor in Santo Domingo, “I used to play catch with a lime,” recalls Pujols, the youngest child in an extended family that included aunts, uncles and a matriarch named America. “We made gloves out of cardboard milk boxes. Sticks were bats.” Born Jose Alberto Pujols, he idolized his divorced dad, now 51—”I used to wear his uniform whenever I could,” Pujols admits. “I wanted to be like him.” Father and son moved to the U.S. when Albert was 16 to join his grandmother, who was by then living in Independence, Mo. “It was tough the first year,” he says. “I was shy. I didn’t know any English.”

Still, he went on to earn A’s and B’s as well as star on the baseball team at Fort Osage High School. “He was so disciplined, and it spilled into other areas,” recalls his English tutor, Portia Stanke, 68. “He’d never have a cookie or candy. He’d say, ‘This is not good for me.’ He did not like to be in places where people smoked because he was concerned about his intake of smoke.”

He made at least one life-altering exception, going to a Kansas City salsa club where he met Deidre, then a secretary. He spoke little English and she, no Spanish. He was 18; she was 21—so, he says, on impulse, he lied and told her he was three years older. But on their first date, at a Cheesecake Factory, he came clean.

“It didn’t matter to me,” says Deidre, now 27. “though I did tell him he was barely legal.” Several weeks into the relationship she told him something else: That she was a single mother whose infant daughter, Bella, had Down syndrome. “I got literature for him and said, ‘This is what she has,'” she says. “He was almost in tears—his heart was so tender about it.”

They married on New Year’s Day, 2000. Within months Pujols was playing for the Cardinals’ Peoria farm team, struggling to make ends meet on his check of $252 every two weeks. At one point they both waited tables at a country club. Now they could probably buy the country club; before this season he signed a seven-year contract for $100 million. So far, though, they’ve settled for a five-bedroom home.

Quite a stretch from swatting limes. “I never pictured myself having these things,” says Pujols, who is studying for his U.S. citizenship test when he’s not fixated on winning a World Series. “I never forget where I came from. It makes you feel good inside.”

Richard Jerome. Kate Klise in Creve Coeur

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