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Hochman: ‘Albert Pujols has inspired my life.’ Slugger’s return touches St. Louisans with Down syndrome

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Mertz family

The Mertz family of Dan (left), Tracey (right) and their daughter Kathleen (middle) are extremely excited that Albert Pujols is back on the Cardinals. Photo by Benjamin Hochman

LAKE SAINT LOUIS — Dan Mertz casually typed on his computer when a scream pierced his ears.

At that moment, actual words were inexpressible, so his daughter’s emotions were captured in decibels.

Kathleen Mertz hustled up the stairs, hugged her dad and explained her exclaim: “Albert’s coming back!”

“I was screaming because I felt really excited for him to come back to St. Louis,” said Kathleen, 29, in a calmer moment at her family’s home on Wednesday. “I am so proud of Albert Pujols. And that’s coming down from my heart.”

The news of Pujols’ return was special to St. Louisans, especially the thousands with Down syndrome. Over the years and decades, Pujols has touched so many people who have Down syndrome, as does his daughter, Isabella. Along with the Pujols Family Foundation, Albert has hosted innumerable events in which he interacts with young people, infusing them with an inner sense of pride.

Quite simply and beautifully, he makes Kathleen feel good about being herself.

“Albert Pujols has inspired my life,” said Kathleen, who has Down syndrome and has known Pujols since she was a little girl. “He’s been like my best friend.”

Todd Perry recalled the fervor at his staff meeting Monday, upon Pujols’ signing with the Cardinals — “Now we can do this! And this! And we got to do this!”

Perry is the longtime CEO/executive director at the Pujols Family Foundation. Since 2005, they’ve hosted more than 100 events every year for people with Down syndrome — including during the pandemic. Some of their bigger events include a prom and a basketball game with the kids, which former Cardinal Brad Thompson called “a two-hour-long smile.” Albert, without fanfare, has flown back to town for some events. Now, for a final season, he’ll live in town, once more.

Perry calls himself “faith-driven.” And this had some fate to it, too.

The designated hitter has been in baseball’s American League since 1973, “and you mean to tell me we get the DH this year in the National League,” Perry said, “and it happens to be his last year? And the Dodgers were interested (in him) until Freddie Freeman (signing with the Dodgers) started happening. ... You kind of pull back and realize there’s a there’s a bigger picture, and there’s a destiny. Of course, he landed here.

“There is there’s an authenticity that’s in Albert’s love for these people. ... There’s a light that comes on in him when he’s when he’s around these people. But it’s also reciprocated. There’s so much love that’s given back to him, because every one of these kids think that he’s their best friend. It’s a pure and genuine appreciation of each other.”

Kathleen first met Albert in 2002. She threw out the first pitch at Busch. She asked him to hit a homer. In his first at-bat, he hit a homer.

She once spoke at his golf tournament. He once gave her and her family a trip to Florida. Before Albert left after the 2011 season, she and her family were invited to a special, private banquet with him. When Albert famously returned to St. Louis in 2019, Kathleen’s angel on the Angels hugged her in the stands. She held up a large, homemade sign — it had a picture of the spiraling Milky Way and read: “Albert Pujols is my best friend in the universe.”

That sign is on display in her family’s basement, along with an Albert Pujols signed Wheaties box, an Albert Pujols signed baseball and even a piece of artwork of Albert Pujols. On a tour Wednesday, Kathleen also showed off her workout room.

A study showed that 50% of kids with Down syndrome are either obese or will be as adults. Kathleen, meanwhile, teaches fitness in videos and classes to 65 people. She does workout routines, some involving an intimidating but rewarding sit-up regimen. And she provides healthy eating advice, some involving vegetables and water intake.

“Albert makes me happy and inspires me, watching him play baseball,” Kathleen said. “And he likes to be healthy and active. And I don’t blame him.”

Austin Bontty, 19, played in Pujols’ basketball game in 2019. He has since graduated from high school, and in an interview Wednesday said he remains active — because of Albert’s influence. Bontty, who has Down syndrome, is a regular at the St. Louis Boxing Club in Webster Groves.

“Sometimes he does two sessions a day,” said his father, Brad. “He thinks about Albert being healthy and working out.”

Bontty might get a chance to reunite with No. 5 sometime this year. Same for Kathleen and the other nearly 1,500 people with Down syndrome in the database of the Pujols Family Foundation.

“It’s like a gift to St. Louis,” said Kathleen’s mother, Tracey. “And to our household. I can’t even believe that we’re a part of it. … He’s done so many things for kids with Down syndrome, just showing the world what kids with Down syndrome can do.”

At the same table in the basement that is a Pujols museum, Kathleen’s dad, Dan, said: “The confidence they’ve all just developed from that relationship, that may not otherwise have developed to such high level? It warms your heart.”

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