Angels slugger Albert Pujols hosts his first Pujols Family Foundation event in Orange County for families with Down Syndrome on July 1, 2013, at ESPNZone Downtown Disney in Anaheim. His family, including his daughter, Bella, 15, who has Down Syndrome, attend along with 80 families, and Pujols shows off his gentler, loving side as a father and friend — a stark departure from the fierce posture he has on the field.
ANAHEIM – On a July night at ESPNZone Downtown Disney, where many came to meet a most accomplished ballplayer, a future Hall of Famer and a fierce slugger on the verge of hitting 500 career home runs, Albert Pujols introduced his family.
“This is my daughter Bella,” Pujols proudly said, raising his meaty arm at his side during his speech to families a lot like his own.
Bella, a sweet girl with a brown bob and soft features, appeared shy as any 15-year-old would when surrounded by an audience of 250 strangers at this Pujols Family Foundation event.
She wore a neon green and white-striped blouse emblazoned with the slogan “Girls Can Change the World,” blue-jean shorts and teal sneakers. Her brown eyes stared at the floor when she wasn’t looking up and smiling between sips of her cherry slushy.
Like many local children and young adults in attendance, Bella, the oldest of Pujols’ five children, lives with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes lifelong mental and developmental delays.
“She’s a perfect girl,” he told the crowd. “She’s why we are here.”
ESPNZone donated its 10,000 square-foot, second-floor Sports Arena arcade of nearly 200 video and interactive games to become their private playground for the four-hour Pujols Family Foundation “Game Day.”
This was the first foundation event Pujols hosted in Orange County since the three-time NL MVP, nine-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion signed his 10-year, $246 million deal with the Angels in December 2011.
He could have just shown up midway through this July 1 event, made a speech, taken some publicity photos and left.
But Pujols doesn’t do anything halfway or half-heartedly. He arrived shortly after the 4 p.m. start with his wife, Dee Dee, and daughters Bella and Sophia, 7, and son, A.J., 12.
For the next 3 1/2 hours, he made his way through the maze of games, some Angels apparel-donning fans and all the families who understand the challenges of Down syndrome.
He was here not as a ballplayer but as a devoted father simply dressed in a black T-shirt, blue jeans and a black baseball cap. No Angels No. 5 uniform. No heart-of-the-order bat. No first baseman’s glove.
But all love.
“This is what Albert Pujols does with his day off,” said an awestruck Kellie Perez, senior director of the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County.
“He can do anything. It means so much to us that he spends it here, at home, with us.”
Pujols, 33, used his fame to give these families an extraordinary and memorable night, a party in a place where these could meet, make friends and have fun playing games without worrying about being bullied or mocked or shoved in a corner.
All the games, dinners and towering ice cream sundae desserts were free. So were the bear hugs from a hulking 6-foot-3, 230-pound Pujols.
“Trust me, there are never enough hugs,” he said laughing. “People see me on the field with my game face because that’s my job. But here, I am myself. This is who I am.”
He was disappointed to go on the disabled list July 27 because of a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot. He yearns to play, to be able to contribute to the Angels “but injury is something, my friend kept telling me the other night, that I can’t control,” he said.
He hobbles home to his wife and children who love him regardless of whether he even stepped into the batter’s box.
“It has been good to have them around,” he said. “I need them because this rough time is so hard for me. I’m a big competitor. I want to be out there with my team. My family understands me and tries to cheer me up.”
Pujols thought of his family last week when he defended himself against allegations of PED use from former major leaguer Jack Clark.
“I would never be able to look my wife of kids in the eye if I had done what this man is accusing me of,” Pujols said in a statement.
At ESPNZone, Pujols revealed the private, more personal side he heavily guards behind a persona of an intimidating, driven, steely-eyed competitor on the field.
He showed that his greatest happiness comes not from his wealth of baseball achievements but from the richness of his family.
As people met him, they learned he was warm, humble, genuine and sincere about “hoping to make some friends and get to know people, not just as a baseball player but as the person I am off the field and without the uniform on,” he said.
Pujols easily disappeared into the crowd, playing games with everyone, shooting and sinking baskets on ESPN Hoops Hysteria and lofting footballs at targets in 2-Minute Drill.
Between and even during games, he stopped to sign autographs, take photos and visit with other parents. He shared his time “with the community where I will hopefully end my career,” he said.
“I got to meet Albert and he’s taller than my dad,” said Alex Martin, 18, of Huntington Beach. “He’s really nice. He’s my favorite player more than ever now.”
You didn’t need to know baseball to become a fan of Pujols, who worked the room, thanking each person for being there.
“We’re connected to Albert because he knows what we’re going through,” said Linda Jensen of Brea, while watching her daughter, Sarah, 10, play air hockey with Bella and seeing Pujols at ease being the spectator.
“He’s just standing over there watching his kids, making sure they’re OK and having fun.”
Pujols wasn’t shy about sharing his family’s story about how he began dating Dee Dee in 1999 and first met her 3-month-old daughter, Bella, from a previous relationship.
“I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome,” he recalled. “I just wanted to be her daddy and be there for her.”
While talking, he looked around the room to find Bella and smiled when he spotted her across the room riding a motorcycle to play Super Bikes 2.
“I look at my daughter right now and she’s like anybody else,” Pujols said. “When I’ve tried to teach her things, it might take a little bit more time. She has taught me patience. She’s able to do everything. Now she’s grown up.”
He soon dashed across the Sports Arena to Bella, who glowed when he came near. He playfully grabbed the back of her motorcycle seat and tried to shake her off course. She pushed back and steered to the finish line, threw her hands in the air and cheered.
Pujols laughed and clapped and later got her to join him for a round of target shooting on ESPN Biathlon. He showed her how to hold and aim the orange plastic shotgun.
When Bella hit her first target and Pujols saw it illuminate on the wall 10 yards away, he roared. He patted her on the back and pointed it out to everyone in the vicinity, shouting, “Look at that!”
People, particularly other parents of children with Down syndrome, saw this and realized how his joy so closely resembled theirs that night.
“I get that. My son was apprehensive about coming tonight,” said Blanca Duran about her son, Caleb, 11. “But once he got here, played basketball, started having fun and high-fived the other kids around him, I saw how happy he was and that made me happy.”
Having his family around him is a luxury Pujols doesn’t take for granted. He relishes the summers when his children are out of school and can join him in their Irvine home and at Angel Stadium.
“It’s tough in baseball to have my family away because they are the people I most want to come home to after a good game or a bad game,” he said. “When they’re with me, whether I see them in the morning or at night or here, I am the happiest.”
His eyes glistened.
Pujols spoke like a loving father when describing Bella’s typical teenage push for independence at home in the way “she watches her TV shows, plays on her iPad and wants to be with her own friends,” he said.
“I respect that and don’t mind because I know she knows I am there for her.”
He lit up when talking about summertime he gets to spend with A.J., who gets his own Angels uniform, a neighboring clubhouse locker and freedom to hang out with his father and the team during pregame warmups at Angel Stadium.
Later that evening, Pujols found A.J. jamming buttons and strumming the plastic guitar controller on Guitar Hero Arcade. Feeling mischievous, Pujols began to tickle his son’s sides until A.J. swatted him back with the guitar’s neck.
“A.J., you are really good at this,” Pujols said.
“I know,” A.J. answered with a grin.
At the end of the evening, Pujols found his daughters, Bella and Sophia, teaming up to play Speed of Light. Their hands flew across a wall to smack dim the blinking bulbs for points.
Pujols, the superstar ballplayer, stood in the background and enjoyed watching someone else play their games. He wanted to remember this. So he pulled his phone from his pocket and took a picture.
Just like any proud father would do.