By Rob Rains
When Juan Yepez walked into the visiting clubhouse in Kansas City almost a month ago, ready to make his major-league debut, he was welcomed with a long bear hug from Albert Pujols.
The two, the seasoned veteran and the wide-eyed rookie, have almost literally been joined at the hip ever since.
“I think he (Pujols) allows him to go to the bathroom by himself and that’s about it,” said Cardinals’ manager Oli Marmol.
The way Pujols and Yepez have formed such a quick bond since that hug on May 4 has not surprised Marmol, who hoped from the day the Cardinals signed Pujols that the future Hall of Famer’s influence on the team’s young players, such as Yepez, would be one of the extended benefits of the move.
“When we decided to sign Albert in spring training, I pulled Yepez in the office and told him, ‘This move obviously directly impacts you making the club, but you can go in two directions. You can be frustrated by it or you can latch yourself to one of the greatest righthanded hitters ever to play this game and take advantage of the fact that he’s going to be in the same building as you.’
“What he (Yepez) has done since day one is extract as much value from Albert as possible.”
Yepez was optioned to Memphis to start the season, but when Edmundo Sosa had to be placed on the Covid IL, it opened a spot on the roster and Yepez has taken full advantage of it – to play, and to learn.
What Yepez quickly learned was that Pujols, despite his gawdy career numbers and a big difference in their ages, was willing to make himself available anytime Yepez had a question or needed help with something.
“He asks a lot of questions,” Pujols said. “I love it. He’s a really humble kid, and really fun to be around.”
The fact that Pujols has been so open to helping Yepez, and the Cardinals’ other young players, is something that Yepez quickly come to appreciate – and something he certainly is not taking for granted.
“He was like, ‘Don’t be shy to ask any questions, I’m here for you,’” Yepez said. “Since that day I’ve just been asking questions.”
The questions have run the gamut – from checking on what Pujols saw in a particular at-bat to big picture thoughts about the game, or about life. Pujols has welcomed them all, even though he jokes that he is glad when Yepez goes onto the field to play defense so he can get a little bit of a break.
“He’s said a couple of times that I talk a lot and ask a lot of questions,” Yepez said, “but he’s told me he had a lot people he would talk to and ask questions.”
That, indeed, is one of the reasons Pujols is happy to take the time to answer all of the questions from Yepez, who was just a 3-year-old toddler in Venezuela when Pujols made his major-league debut in 2001.
“When I see him I see myself,” Pujols said. “I see myself walking into old Busch Stadium and asking questions to the veteran guys. Sometimes I know I felt I was asking a little bit too much but those guys enjoyed it. It helped me out to become who I am today.
“My teammates that I had had a big impact in my life and my career. This is part of my responsibility any my role.”
Among the players a young Pujols turned to for advice and answers were Placido Polanco, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, Mike Matheny and even the late Darryl Kile.
“He (Kile) was one of the guys who told me, ‘I’m doing this for you’ and he wasn’t even a position player,” Pujols said. “He said, ‘I know you are going to do it for somebody else’ and that stuck with me for the rest of my life.”
What Pujols has appreciated about the questions from Yepez is that they all revolve around the same goal – the quest for knowledge about the game, and about what he can do to become a better player.
“He’s willing to be open and to listen,” Pujols said. “He wants to learn and he wants to get better. You don’t see that with a lot of young guys right now.
“If I don’t have the answer I try to find out. I just want to try to make him comfortable. This game is a game of making adjustments. He’s aware of that, and he knows what he needs to do. He’s a good player with talent and he knows what he wants to do at the plate and with his approach and that is something that is really good. He’s really mature for his age.”
Part of that maturity is illustrated by the respect that Yepez had for Pujols long before they met in person, before Yepez would allow himself to consider Pujols his teammate and friend.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve seen Albert Pujols and heard of him,” Yepez said. “He is a legend. Being here and having him treat me this way helps me. It’s a God thing. He put him here for a reason and I’m here for a reason. It’s pretty special.
“I was talking to my family and I was like, ‘He’s the machine. He’s the legend.’ It’s hard to see him as a teammate. I see him more as kind of a father figure. My ears are wide open listening to what he has to say to me.”
Part of Yepez’s respect for Pujols comes from all of the work that Pujols has done for his foundation and other charities.
“I told him I was so proud of what he did on the field but also what he did off the field,” Yepez said. “I wanted to tell him how I looked up to him.”
Much of their time together has been spent discussing the proper mental approach that Yepez wants to take into each at-bat. Having the physical tools necessary to succeed at the major-league level is something that Pujols knows – and Yepez is learning – isn’t always enough.
“One of the things he told me was to be aggressive and not to take any at-bat for granted,” Yepez said. “He’s been helping me relax. When I go out there I feel relaxed because he is there telling me how good I am. Albert Pujols telling me how good I am is pretty special.”
What Marmol has observed about Yepez’s relationship with Pujols is that the benefits of all the time they are spending together can’t be measured by the results of one particular at-bat or even what happens during one game. Some of the benefits might be apparent immediately, resulting from a piece of advice that Pujols shared, but sometimes theywon’t be that obvious.
“It’s a great relationship of one of the greatest to ever do it teaching the next guy up what it looks like,” Marmol said. “Albert has made himself extremely approachable not only to Yepez but to everybody in that clubhouse. It’s an amazing trait.
“Some stuff that they talk about will come into play immediately and some of it will take time.”
Pujols realizes that because of his accomplishments in the game, and the age difference, some younger players might be reluctant to approach him for help. He’s glad Yepez wasn’t like that.
“One thing you need to learn is that you can’t be intimidated by anybody in this game,” Pujols told him. “I’m not going to force you to listen to me just because I have experience. I can tell you about the adjustments that might have helped me, but you have to figure out what is going to help you. You have to find that out for yourself. But my goal is to be open and willing to help.”
Yepez didn’t take long to learn that.
“I will keep reaching out to him but at the end when you go out there you are alone, just you against the pitcher,” Yepez said. “I am trusting what got me here. I just want to play the game and have fun, trusting my abilities.
“Sometimes I still have some butterflies, but I definitely feel more comfortable now. I know there are ups and downs in baseball and everybody has stretches where it’s hard. He (Pujols) has helped me relax and remember it’s just a game.”
From what Pujols has observed, and learned, about Yepez, it’s a game that Yepez should be good at for a long time.
“He’s got the talent,” Pujols said. “There still is a long ways to go but he’s going to be OK at this level as long as he sticks with his approach and what he wants to do at the plate.”
Pujols also knows there also will likely come a day when a new player, fresh up from the minor leagues, will be asking Yepez for advice and suggestions.
“I’m not going to be around forever,” Pujols said.
While Pujols is here, however, it won’t be hard to find him – just look for Yepez and Pujols likely will be standing right next to him.
“I’m very thankful and really appreciate all the time he is taking with me,” Yepez said.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports