Albert Pujols started his career with four startling seasons, equal or better than those of many Hall of Famers. Only Barry Bonds always did better -- until this year.
Pujols won his first National League most valuable player award Tuesday, beating Andruw Jones in a close vote that didn't include Bonds, who missed most of the season because of a knee injury.
"A lot of the fans and even the players, they missed Barry," Pujols said of the seven-time MVP, who had won the previous four seasons. "I wished he would have been healthy and played."
Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman, received 18 first-place votes and 14 seconds for 378 points in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Jones, the Atlanta Braves' center fielder, got 13 firsts, 17 seconds and 2 thirds for 351 points.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee got the other first-place vote and was third with 263 points.
"It's awesome when you hear people compare yourself with Barry," Pujols said.
Pujols hit .330 with 41 homers and 117 RBI. His average was second, five points behind Lee, and he trailed only Jones (51) and Lee (46) in homers. He tied for second in RBI with 117, 11 behind Jones.
Jones led the major leagues in home runs, batted .263 and won his eighth straight Gold Glove.
"I think he deserved it. The voting was the right vote. He was the right choice," Jones said. "He had the most solid season average-wise, home run-wise and RBI-wise."
Pujols played in 161 regular season games despite being bothered nearly the entire season by plantar fasciitis, a heel injury that he also felt in 2004.
"There were some times when I got out of bed, I had to sit up before I jumped out of bed because it was bothering me so bad," he said.
Pujols, 25, has put up remarkable statistics in his first five major league seasons, averaging 40 homers and 124 RBI to go with a .332 average.
He was third behind Bonds and Adrian Beltre in last year's MVP voting after finishing fourth as a rookie in 2001 and second to Bonds the following two seasons. Bonds missed most of this year with a knee injury after winning the award four straight times to increase his record total of MVP awards to seven.
The Cardinals led the majors with 100 wins this season and breezed to the Central title. Pujols was the driving force on a team that lost Scott Rolen and other key players to injuries.
Atlanta went 90-72 and won its 14th straight division championship. Jones was the only Braves player with more than 21 homers or 78 RBI.
Pujols, who gets a $200,000 bonus, won the 15th MVP award for the Cardinals, the first since Willie McGee in 1985.
By finishing third, Lee triggered a $750,000 increase in his 2006 base salary to $8.75 million.
Florida first baseman Carlos Delgado, who was sixth, earned five points toward the 30 he needs by the end of 2008 to guarantee a $16 million salary in 2009. He would get 10 points for winning the MVP, 20 if he is a World Series MVP and 10 if he is a league championship series MVP.