Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim designated hitter Albert Pujols is one of the greatest sluggers in baseball. In April, he hit home run number 500, putting him in some elite company. And as the 2014 season has progressed, Pujols has kept hitting home runs — climbing the all-time list (he’s currently at number 21 with 515 dingers) and helping his team reach the top of the American League West.
But Pujols’ accomplishments on the field are nothing compared to what he has done off it. His daughter Isabella has Down syndrome, and since his days as a St. Louis Cardinal Pujols has been an active advocate for kids and adults with special needs. He has partnered with the Down Syndrome Association since 2001, and in 2005 he founded his own non-profit organization, the Pujols Family Foundation, with his wife, Deidre. The foundation promotes awareness of special needs issues and helps kids and families living with Down syndrome both in the US and his native Dominican Republic.
Pujols’ is also helping raise awareness by being the cover model for Toys “R” Us’ 20th annual Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids. The guide launched today, and it’s a resource for anyone looking for a great toy for the special needs kid in their life.
Pujols spoke with SI Kids yesterday about his work with Toys “R” Us and special needs kids and adults, as well as hitting 500 home runs and what the Angels need to do to finish the season as AL West champs.
How did you get involved with this Toy “R” Us gift guide?
Through the Pujols Family Foundation. They wanted to do something through the foundation, so they called and asked if I would be willing to do something. Anytime I get an opportunity to help our foundation out, I want to do whatever it takes. It’s about giving back, not just in the United States but giving back in the Dominican Republic, and they were willing to help.
I had never heard of a gift guide specifically for kids with special needs. Are there other guides out there or is this the only one?
I think this is something that they’ve created. I don’t know if it’s the only one, but when they brought it up to us we were pretty excited about it. I have a daughter with special needs, and I know how important that is.
What makes a toy good for a special needs kid? How much of a difference is there between a toy that’s appropriate for a kid with special needs and a toy that’s OK for any kid?
A lot of people can look at a toy as a toy, but there are a lot of different toys that can help a lot of kids in many different ways. It’s something that [comes down to] what you want to teach your kids, and as long as you can see it helping them out in their lives that’s the way to go about it. You can go by what people say, if they think this or this will be good. But in the end you just have to buy what you believe [will benefit the kid]. I believe to have the opportunity to pair with Toys R Us, to help out kids with special needs – it’s really special. I don’t know if you deal with kids or adults with special needs, but they have a good heart and they’re very sensitive about little things.
People think, “They have Down syndrome they can’t do anything.” That’s not true. Right now, we just launched a program in every major league ballpark to partner with our foundation to have a Down syndrome adult working there. You need to give them the opportunity to learn. You might have to tell them once or twice, but I think working with them and being around them is about being more patient than anything else. They do have the ability to do anything that we can do. They have to have the training and take it a little bit slower than a different person. That’s what I tell people. Just because I have a daughter with Down syndrome, that doesn’t mean that she’s dumb, that she can’t do things in this life that we are not able to do. She’s open to do everything pretty much, but you have to teach her to do those things and help them out to do the things you want them to learn. Anytime I’m around those kids, it helps me to be more patient and that’s my passion.
You mentioned being patient with the adults who are going to work at ballparks. How about kids? There are kids with special needs who go to school with kids who aren’t differently-abled, and kids can be rough on other kids. What would you say to a kid who sees a special-needs classmate getting bullied or picked on?
I think my message here is to encourage those kids right now, you don’t have to be mean. You need to help these kids. Just put yourself in that situation. If that’s you, or your brother or your sister, are you going to be able to do those bad things to them? No, I don’t think so. Just like you would love your sister or brother, it’s the same way. They want to be loved. That’s the thing, and that’s my encouragement for kids that are in school right now.
To finish up, let’s talk baseball. First off, congratulations on hitting 500 home runs. What was going through your mind as you got closer to that milestone?
Nothing, to tell you the truth, I was really relaxed I knew it was going to happen sometime this year. I would have loved to have done it last year if I was healthy, but then I got hurt for, like, three months of the season. So I look at it like it was supposed to be last year, but it wasn’t. It was this year. It’s something that I give all the glory and all the credit to the Lord. There’s a lot of hard work and dedication that I have put into this game to be the best that I can be and help our city to win championships like I did in St. Louis and like I hopefully do in Anaheim and Southern California. I don’t know. It took me a while, it took me about three weeks to say, “Wow, did I just do that?” It’s pretty special. Almost 20,000 players have come through the major leagues, and I think only 20 – I forgot how many it was – have done what I’ve done. [Twenty-six players have hit 500 or more home runs in MLB history.] It’s pretty special. Not to be cocky, but it’s really an honor to be part of that history.
You’re the third-youngest player to hit 500 home runs. I’m sure you have a lot of years left in you. How high up on that list do you think you can go?
I don’t know. I don’t like to predict the future. I just want to stay healthy and see at the end of my contract, the end of my career… I think if I can stay healthy I can accomplish a lot of records in this game. But at the end of the day, that’s not my goal. My goal is to win some championships and to be the best that I can be, on and off the field.
Right now, the Angels are tied with the A’s in the AL West. [The Angels defeated the A’s last night to take sole possession of first place.] What do the Angels have to do to keep pace and end as division champions?
I think we’re going to play great like we’ve been doing. Obviously we have six weeks left. It’ll be great. That is what makes it so great and this moment like I said, when you’re so close, to take one step closer, you don’t want to let it go. You want to grab it and hold it. Hopefully, at the end of the day and the end of the season, we can raise that trophy. We are in a special place right now, better than where we’ve been the last couple of years, and hopefully we can get the shot this year to accomplish our goal.
Photos: courtesy Toys "R" Us, Patrick Smith/Getty Images