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Saturday, June 2, 2012
For Pujols, family matters

By Enrique Rojas | ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com


ANAHEIM -- For theoreticians, family is the natural and fundamental core of society. For Albert Pujols, it means everything.

The Dominican Los Angeles Angels first baseman is famous for the ease with which he can hit a baseball, for the excuses to justify bad stretches and for strong attachment to his family.

That is why the huge difference in the expression on Pujols’ face -- the same face that battled a terrible offensive slump in April, the first month of his 120-month, $240 million contract with the Angels -- over the last few days has not gone unnoticed.

"The month of April was really tough... getting used to the league," Pujols told ESPNdeportesLosAngeles.com on Friday before the start of the Rangers-Angels series at Angel Stadium.

"I don’t like to make excuses, it’s part of adapting to the league, to a different city, all of that. Now that my family arrived, it’s much better. The first few months I was tackling it all by myself, but things have changed; we are playing better," Pujols said during the on-camera interview.

"It affects you; you cannot take good care of your loved ones merely by telephone," Pujols said off-camera. "My wife is an amazing person, managing a household, taking care of the children, tending to our obligations in St. Louis," he added.

Pujols made nine trips to the All-Star Game and won three National League MVP awards in 11 seasons with the Cardinals. Behind his extraordinary talent and steely dedication was always his family, composed of his wife Deidre and four children.

When he agreed to sign with the Angels as a free agent, Pujols knew that he wouldn’t have his loved ones in Los Angeles for the first few months. Not until the school year in St. Louis was over, until the purchase of a new house in California was finalized and until some pending matters in Missouri were settled.

"It’s not an adventure, it’s a blessing," said Pujols about the decision to sign with the Anaheim team. "I thank God for helping me in making this decision. It is a process and we knew it. St. Louis is still our city, where we live and have our home," Pujols noted in the interview.

It would be difficult, almost impossible, to determine to what degree his family’s absence may have affected the season start for Pujols, who didn’t connect his first home run of the season until game #29 and at-bat #111. Pujols, the leader among active hitters with a .328 batting average and the only baseball player with 30 homers in his first 11 seasons, was batting .190 with one home run on May 8th. He was benched on May 5th by manager Mike Scioscia so that he could refresh his body and mind.

At the same time, Los Angeles languished at the bottom of the AL West with a 13-18 record and miserable results on the road (4-10). The club’s bad stretch, and possibly Pujols’, cost hitting coach Mickey Hatcher his job, as he was fired on May 15th after 13 years on the job.

"Maybe I was a bit desperate, swinging at pitches to which I wasn’t accustomed, but that’s a part of baseball. You go through those tough things to learn about yourself," Pujols said about the slump.

Pujols’ struggles made the headlines on sports pages in the United States and the obligatory segment in radio and television programs, even in some that don’t traditionally comment on sports. The player’s phone was always ringing and receiving text messages from worried friends and colleagues.

"These are friends and teammates that worry about me as a person, not as a ball player. When you retire, all that’s left are the nice relationships you built on and off the field," said Pujols.

"David Ortiz, Edwin Encarnacion, Placido Polanco, Edgar Renteria and many other friends who are playing or played with me are supporting me because of the friendships we’ve made. That is the most important thing for anyone," he stated.

It can’t be pinpointed exactly if it is was due to extra work with new hitting coach Jim Eppard, the advice of concerned colleagues or the imminence of reuniting with his family, all or none of the above, but Pujols started to improve with the bat on May 9th, against Minnesota, notching two hits and two RBI.

Since then, things changed, favorably, for "The Machine" and the team. The Dominican player batted .318 (85-27) with at least one hit in 18 out of 21 games to raise his average to .243. He also has seven home runs in the last 15 games and has brought in 23 runs over the last 24.

Los Angeles improved noticeably in May (registering an 18-11 record, second best in the majors) and won eight in a row before losing to the New York Yankees on Wednesday, their last game of the month. The California team kicked off June with a .500 record (26-26) while occupying second place in the AL West, 5-1/2 games behind Texas.

"I have changed. I know the league a little better; I got used to the trips. In the end, what’s important is how it ends, not how it starts. I’ve said it several times: the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint," he said. A long-distance race which he will only be able to run successfully if his family is closeby.

"We already have a house; we bought it a couple of weeks ago. But the children finished school just last Friday. I feel very happy that my family is with me at last," he said before reiterating his commitment to the people of Los Angeles.

"I don’t have to look left or right; I feel good in Los Angeles," he said.

"To reach the postseason and try to help this team become champion," he singled out as the only goal on his agenda for 2012 and the other nine contract years he will have left with the Angels.