6:45 PM CDT, March 16, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. -- He remembers what he ordered: a chicken wrap.
They were together at a Cheesecake Factory. He was 18 and on his night off from setting tables and serving food at the local country club.
It was his first date with the woman who would become his wife. He says he already knew that.
"Our first kiss was in the elevator," Albert Pujols says with a grin, and the big slugger isn't so intimidating right now.
She spoke English and he spoke Spanish, making it interesting when she tried to find just the right words to tell him she had a three-month-old baby at home with Down syndrome.
"I didn't know," he says.
She did her best with what Spanish she knew to try to explain Down syndrome. And he did not run. He listened, still rock solid in his interest, he says, "Because she felt like the right one."
He would later see Isabella "and understand better Down syndrome," he says, "but since that day she's been my daughter."
Marriage would make them a family when Albert, the 402nd player taken in the 1999 draft, was earning $250.52 a month in the minor leagues. A $240-million contract with the Angels was beyond dreaming.
"I don't know where I would be without my wife," Pujols says before stopping for a moment, afraid he might get emotional.
"And Bella has taught me so much. How to be patient, how to be loving."
Pujols is the father of five, including Isabella, now 15. "I know some people who have Down syndrome kids who sometimes hide them," he says. "But I look at her and Bella's normal. Yeah, you maybe need to tell her things a couple of times, but let me tell you, there's nobody more loving."
Once again I get the Pujols I'm not expecting.
It has been almost a year since he recorded the highest score ever recorded on Page 2's entrance exam for athletes and coaches arriving to town.
He had a reputation that said he was snippy, grouchy and downright peevish when asked how old he might really be.
So that was the first question. Pujols said he was born the same year as Page 2, making him 61 and explaining his slow start with the Angels. And he laughed.
Now they are wheeling him to the plate and asking for a courtesy runner should he hit the ball.
He's recovering from a bum knee, and he has another nine years left on his contract. I'm telling him he probably has four more good years in him, and then a retirement tour.
"I love it," he says. "It's so much better when it's said to my face and not behind my back. Bring it on."
How do you rattle a pro's pro?
We hear everything that's wrong with athletes. But here's someone who does it right, a man of faith, family and charitable work. He's also a .325 career hitter who speaks with amazement about teammate Mike Trout.
"He excites me," Pujols said. "I don't need any more motivation to play this game because I love it, but Trout motivates me every day. I'm waking up and going to the ballpark to see the best player in the game and we're on the same team. I'll never shut the doors on learning and I stop what I'm doing to watch him."
But what's it like to be the man for so long and give way to youth?
"I'm not the man," he says. "There's only one man and that was Stan Musial."
Did I mention he always gets the last word in?
Pujols says he feels better now, and let's hope so after waiting until May 6 a year ago for him to hit a home run. He also took off September, but still hit 30 for the season.
"I won't lie to you — it was a tough move," he says. "Everybody wanted a piece of me. It was a little overwhelming. Now I can take a deep breath."
So he's more comfortable?
"I'm never comfortable," he says. "I've had a chip on my shoulder all my life. You forget nobody wanted me in the beginning. The chip is still there. It's like the people who say I can't play nine more years…"
I don't think it's polite to stare holes through a columnist, especially when you have a stare like Pujols.
"You and me will be sitting right here nine years from now having another talk," he says.
I wonder whether that's his way of saying he won't be talking to Page 2 again for another nine years. Usually what I hear from our athletes is "never again."
Obviously Pujols and I really get along.