The eyes are angry. Something has gone wrong with the precisely controlled swing of Albert Pujols. A ball he knows he should have hit hundreds of feet is instead drifting lazily over the shortstop, about to be caught. And though this late-season game has come to mean nothing, the at-bat pointless, he is displeased.
He grabs the brim of his batting helmet with giant fingers, and with the snap of a wrist he hurls it to the ground. Then he walks away.
There is a way the first baseman of the Cardinals -- perhaps the best hitter in the game right now -- walks when he is displeased or deep in thought. He stomps. His face burns. He quietly seethes.
"To get better you have to get angry," he will later say. "You have to take this seriously. I've always had that anger as a player. I always say, 'Why do you want to change what's working for you?' I don't want to change the way I am."
In many ways, Pujols is a mystery. St. Louis is in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and it is clear that Pujols has had a great deal to do with the last four of those appearances, yet in many ways he remains an unknown and underappreciated commodity. The man with enormous arms that look like smokestacks spilling from his Cardinals jersey has torn the National League to pieces. At just 25 years old, he has already put up statistics that are astounding: In five seasons, he has never hit lower than .314, smashed fewer than 34 home runs or had fewer than 117 RBI.
There have been only three other players with 100 RBI in each of their first five seasons: Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons. These Hall of Famers are his contemporaries; there are no others.
The eyes are angry again. There is an unexpected visitor before a recent game, someone Pujols didn't know was coming. The visitor wants to ask questions. The slugger does not handle such intrusions well. He shouts, he curses, he growls. "NO!" he yells and struts away, a large, sleeveless T-shirt looking very small on his gargantuan body.
It is much later, after the game, when he apologizes, offering a hand the size of a first-baseman's mitt and saying he does not like distractions. And it is clear moments into the conversation that there is an order to Pujols's approach. There is work to be done, balls to hit, pitchers to study. He does not have time for anything that takes him from those things.
The Cardinals' hitting coach, Hal McRae, has looked into the angry eyes and seen something deeper, more mysterious. In his playing days, McRae was known for his rage. As manager of the Royals, his fury manifested itself in a tantrum still replayed on sports highlight shows for its veracity, if nothing else. But in the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Pujols, McRae does not see anger as much as he sees determination.
"I think it's his drive," McRae says. "He wants to achieve a lot. He has some goals that he doesn't talk about."
As to what they are, McRae does not know. He shrugs.
"If you have high standards, it takes awhile to achieve that. I think that's his drive, his motivation. There's something out there that he doesn't talk about."
There is sincerity in the moodiness. Today's players are savvy about things such as money and awards. When an MVP or Cy Young Award is looming in their future they can become almost one-man marketing firms, all but handing out information sheets complete with pie charts and statistical analysis.
Pujols glares. He says to come back another day.
"It's not about myself," he says later. "What can I do to help my team win? What do I need the other stuff for? I don't care about the attention. My name isn't real high and that's fine."
Then he laughs and takes a meaty hand and begins dropping it in front of his chest.
"Keep me low! Keep me low!" he says. "Let me do my thing and help my team."
The manager is angry, too. Tony La Russa is standing on the field before a recent game, shaking his head at what he views as a disgrace. Once again, his first baseman is in the top five of almost every significant offensive category, and yet again, he is almost assuredly not going to win an MVP award. In other years, it was Barry Bonds who was in the way. This time it's Atlanta's Andruw Jones, who is hitting 67 points lower, has a slugging percentage that is 34 points worse and has 11 fewer stolen bases.
All because Jones, who hit 10 more home runs and driven in 11 more runs, is on a team that was hampered by injuries and yet still managed to win its division.
La Russa is not sympathetic to the Braves' plight. After all, he had to make do for much of this season without third baseman Scott Rolen, worked around injuries to outfielders Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, saw center fielder Jim Edmonds's numbers decline significantly and replaced the second baseman, shortstop and catcher from last year's team that went to the World Series.
"I think there are a couple of perceptions that get misrepresented about him," La Russa says. "The most important is that he's surrounded by this powerhouse team. The fact is he's surrounded by a very good team but this isn't last year's team. Guys aren't pitching to him in this order. He leads the league in intentional walks."
La Russa is asked if he feels he has to campaign for Pujols because St. Louis is a smaller, Midwestern market. The manager quickly agrees.
"He's a player the whole game has overlooked," La Russa said. "He runs to win games, but it's not just the stolen bases [Pujols has 16 -- remarkable for a player with his power]. He's playing defense like a Gold Glover. He's become as much as anything our spiritual leader. At the end of the day, you look at the game and he'll have two hits and two RBI but he's also done something to move the runners over and help us to win."
A few weeks ago, La Russa called Pujols the best young hitter of any he has ever managed, and this is a man who has coached Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson and Carlton Fisk. He will not back off that statement. "If they were watching this guy play every day, they would say it, too," La Russa says. "He's the most complete of all those guys."
His teammates don't dispute it.
"He's definitely in a class of his own when it comes to numbers," Sanders says.
But Pujols won't entertain the question. To consider it would be to break the focus, to concentrate on things that have nothing to do with the task at hand, which is presumably to pound baseballs very hard day after day after day.
"My job is not to be a selfish player, my job is to win," Pujols said.
So far, the best anonymous player in the game today has done just that.