Sunday, April 1, 2012

Baseball and Down Syndrome

Baseball and Down Syndrome?  What does these two topics have in common?  Well, people with Down Syndrome are baseball fans and also love playing baseball.  But, as a huge baseball fan, April 1 means to me baseball season is starting!  One of my baseball heroes is a huge advocate for Down Syndrome.  And what a great advocate he is.......  Albert Pujols.  He changed teams this year and will now play for a team in Southern California.  I am now an Angel's fan.  And Pujols is an angel for kids with Down Syndrome.

PS....  I am participating in the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge .  Check out their web site . HERE.

Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols is greeted by Ethan Schroeder (left), of Eureka,, and Isabel Hogan (center) of St. Louis during an opening reception Wednesday evening for the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome at St. Luke's Desloge Outpatient Center in Chesterfield. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/P-D)

Check out this article about Pujols and his involvement with folk with Down Syndrome.

Albert Pujols: Angels' man and machine

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TEMPE, Ariz. – Albert Pujols' brown eyes suddenly warm from the slugger's low simmer to a child's flicker on this spring morning in the Angels' clubhouse.
He leans back in the folding chair, stretches his arms in front of his heart and recalls how his beisbol life began.

Albert Pujols
Born: Jan. 16, 1980, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Family: Resides in St. Louis with his wife, Deidre; daughters Isabella, 14, and Sophia, 6; sons Alberto Jr. (A.J.), 11, and Ezra, 2; and two dogs, a Pekingese and a Peekapoo.
Off the field: Founded the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005 to benefit causes associated with Down syndrome, which Isabella has, and Dominican relief efforts.
The massive 6-foot-3, 230-pounder opens his left hand, meaty palm skyward, thick fingers spread.
"I got a milk carton, smashed the cardboard down flat and lifted up the sides," Pujols says, his right first pounding repeatedly into left hand.
"That was how I made my first glove."
He remembers being 5 years old, growing up just outside the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, where every poor kid wants beisbol to save him.
Now every Dominican kid wants to be Albert Pujols, "The Machine," the three-time National League Most Valuable Player, the two-time World Series champion, the nine-time All-Star and the greatest hitter of his generation.
He began playing the game with a milk-carton glove, a stick of discarded lumber for a bat, a lime for a baseball and his father's softball jersey as his oversized uniform.
"As soon as I was done with school, I'd go back to the house, get changed and go to the ballpark," he says. "That's how I grew up, like every boy with a baseball dream."
And every day, Pujols – the St. Louis Cardinals icon turned Angel who signed baseball's third-richest contract (10 years, $246 million) this past offseason – remembers where he started.
He has never forgotten that first glove or that he climbed, worked, sweated, toiled and prayed to make something from nothing.
Pujols, 32, has consistently excelled at doing one of the most humbling things in all of sports: hitting a baseball.
During the 11 seasons of his career, all with the Cardinals, the slugger has been a .328 hitter with 1,329 RBIs and 445 home runs, pointing to the Lord every time he crosses the plate.
He has a basement full of trophies and plaques, among them his most prized 2008 Roberto Clemente Award honoring his off-the-field work, and the Ruthian numbers that would already land him in Cooperstown.
But his deepest pride swells from having become a self-made man.
He is a devoted husband to Deidre, or Dee Dee, his best friend since he was 18. He is a loving father to daughters Isabella, 14, and Sophia, 6, and sons A.J. (Albert Jr.), 11, and Ezra, 2.
He is a faithful supporter of Down syndrome causes and the proud Dominican returns at least once a year to help his impoverished homeland.
It's not enough for Pujols to be remembered only as one of the greatest baseball players the game has ever seen. His legacy will be so much more.
His father, Bievenido, was a pitcher and local softball hero but couldn't be counted on as a present parent. His mother deserted the family when Pujols, the youngest of 10 children, was 3.
His grandparents, Papi and America, and the uncles and aunts who were more like brothers and sisters, looked after Pujols, who was too young to know what he went without.
Pujols, his father and grandmother left the Dominican Republic in 1996 for New York City. They were there a few months before Pujols saw a man shot in a grocery store, prompting the family's move to live with relatives in Independence, Mo., just outside Kansas City.
Pujols was a 16-year-old kid who never had a batboy's body. He spoke little English but found a coach on his first day at Fort Osage High and said he wanted to play beisbol.
His raw talent immediately apparent, he became a chunky but effective all-state shortstop and led his new team to a 1997 Missouri state championship.
Pujols belted towering home runs whenever pitchers dared to give him something to hit. One legendary blast was estimated around 450 feet and bounced off a second-floor air conditioner beyond the left-field fence at Liberty High.
In his senior year, he batted .600, was walked 55 times in 88 plate appearances and had eight home runs.
But scouts didn't see Pujols, the thick-bodied man-child, as having a true position, never mind a future as a two-time Gold Glove-winning first baseman.
He went undrafted out of high school, then enrolled at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, where he met Coach Marty Kilgore.
"On the baseball field, he seemed so far ahead of the other kids baseball-wise," Kilgore said. "The hitting really got your attention. The sound of the ball coming off the bat was different from what you hear from 18-year-olds."
To his recruiting visit, Pujols brought his girlfriend, Dee Dee, whom he met at a Kansas City salsa club. Dee Dee worked three jobs and had an infant daughter, Bella, who had Down syndrome.
Pujols saw beyond Bella's condition. He embraced caring for the baby with a smile that could light up a ballpark, babysitting between baseball, school and part-time work at a pizzeria.
"He was heartbroken but not afraid," Dee Dee remembered about the day she explained Down syndrome to Pujols with Spanish-language informational pamphlets.
Wanting to give Dee Dee and Bella a better life motivated him. In his junior college debut, he hit a grand slam and made an unassisted triple play.
He took hundreds of reps in defensive drills. He'd hit before, during and after practice. Then he would call Kilgore later at night, asking, "Hey, can I get some extra hacks?"
"That was pretty much a routine," Kilgore said. "He was driven."
While his teammates had fun on the road, Pujols sat in the front of the bus with coaches. He practiced, ate with the team, never drank and went to bed by 10:30 p.m., saying: "I got a big game tomorrow. Got to get my rest, be ready to play. Should be some scouts there."
Pujols hit .466 with 22 home runs and 76 RBIs in 1999. People around him were telling him he'd be a first-round selection. And he believed them.
He was crushed when 401 players were taken before the Cardinals selected him in the 13th round in 1999. This was the first exposure Pujols and Dee Dee had to the cruel workings of the baseball enterprise, its rumors and hype.
"I didn't want Albert to feel like an object, a possession, but that's the business," Dee Dee said. "He's so much more."
On New Year's Day 2000, just before Pujols left for the Cardinals' Class-A affiliate in Peoria, Ill., he and Dee Dee were married. Their wedding cost $100, which she borrowed from her grandfather, and the reception was limited to 10 people.
"We didn't have anything back then," she remembered.
Determined to prove his value as a ballplayer and provide for his family, Pujols tore through the minors on power and prayers and a $250 check every two weeks. He went from Class-A Peoria to Class-A Potomac to Triple-A Memphis, winning the Cardinals' 2000 Minor League Player of the Year award.
He opened the 2001 season with the Cardinals, hit his first home run in his fourth game and batted .329, with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs, to become NL Rookie of the Year.
St. Louis Cardinals fans soon embraced him as their star. His work off the field made him their son.
They were heartbroken when he left America's heartland to wear No. 5 for the Angels.
Pujols and his wife founded the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005 because they wanted to do more than continue to write checks for worthy causes.
With Bella in mind, they organized experiences for families with children who have Down syndrome – father-son fishing trips, mother-daughter bowling nights, family ballpark outings, even a yearly prom where Pujols dances with the children.
Dee Dee has enjoyed watching her husband so happy, open-hearted and at ease when he's out of uniform.
"He wants to give people the encouragement and the inspiration that he found along the way that kept him going and kept him motivated to want to be the best," Dee Dee said. "This is a pleasure for him."
In January, Pujols made his yearly trip to his native Dominican Republic on a mission for the foundation. He has helped build baseball fields and hosted clinics. He brought doctors and dentists to orphanages.
He has carried new mattresses to the "bateys," or shantytowns where families had been sleeping on water-logged beds, straw or dirt. He has learned about their lives that, in some ways, resemble what his once was.
"I believe it's my responsibility to go back and give back," Pujols said. "Going home keeps me humble and never lets me forget what it took to get to this level and that I have to make sure I maintain that."
Earlier in his baseball career, when Pujols returned to the Dominican for offseason training, he and Dee Dee used to hand out testimony cards in Spanish to introduce themselves and offer help.
Some people couldn't read. Many didn't have homes with electricity or televisions or radios for following baseball games in America.
Dee Dee recalled that many people didn't know who Albert Pujols was. But they would soon learn that he had a genuine, generous heart for more than the game.
"The Machine" sits in front of his Angels clubhouse locker loaded with his power tools: a couple of black leather Rawlings first baseman gloves, a few two-toned maple Marucci bats and a half-dozen pairs of No. 5-embroidered Nike spikes.
No tattoos, no diamond earrings weighing down his lobes, no suspicious cloud of performance-enhancement hanging above him and no pretense, Pujols has blended into the Angels.
He is rejuvenated by spring, by his new teammates and by the promise of playing for a World Series-contending club.
"You look at him and think: 'That's Albert Pujols. He's a machine. You see him on TV. You hear his name all the time. He's hitting homers. He has two World Series (rings), three MVPs,'" said right fielder Torii Hunter, who has the locker beside Pujols.
"And Pujols is the most down-to-earth superstar you can find out there."
When Pujols arrived at the Tempe Diablo Stadium clubhouse, he was a curiosity. Angels, All-Stars and no-stars have watched his every move, studying the workings of greatness, the intensity of his practices, the focus he has in the batting cage and the attention to detail he employs with defense and baserunning.
This is routine for the driven Pujols. He trains and plays as if he were still a player trying to make the team.
"Some guys forget where they came from," Pujols said. "I won't forget. I'm just as hungry today as I was in 1999 and trying to make the ballclub with the Cardinals."
Pujols hit two home runs – his first in an Angels uniform – in a March 14 Cactus League game against the Chicago White Sox. Then he got in his running, grabbed his equipment bag and jumped in the van with the rest of the front-liners as if it were any other day of work.
"He has a great perspective on this game and how important it is to work hard and stay where he is," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
Scioscia sometimes tells his young players, "Watch Albert."
So they do. We do.
Much of the future of the Angels lies in the very same place where beisbol began for a 5-year-old Dominican boy.
It's in Albert Pujols' hands.

Be gentle.

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