Albert Pujols to forge Angels' identity
Veteran slugger is already fast at work at setting a championship example
TEMPE, Ariz. -- For the past few years, since Vladimir Guerrero and his big hands and his pine tar-smeared batting helmet drifted east, the Los Angeles Angels have been missing something. Primarily, they've been missing production in the middle of their batting order, but there's something else.
They've been without a presence, a name-brand star who can not only sell tickets on the road, but give the team someone to line up behind. When the Angels gave Albert Pujols a 10-year, $250 million contract to sign in December, it was about that as much as it was about his massive arms and menacing bat.
It was about identity.
"When our team comes to town, you know Albert Pujols is coming to town and we're coming with him," Angels pitcher Dan Haren said.
As this spring moves along, the Angels will have more and more of an idea what kind of leader they brought in to carry them through the next decade. It doesn't matter if other people speak up more in meetings or if Pujols shrugs off the media for weeks at a time. For better or for worse, his identity is the Angels' identity.
You don't scrape together a quarter-of-a-billion dollars for a player without doing a little research. The Angels ran Pujols' numbers through whatever algorithms they use. They evaluated how they thought his body would age through his 30s and into his 40s.
But they also started placing calls, reaching out to as many people they could who know Pujols well. It started with the general manager, Jerry Dipoto, and filtered down to the scouting staff -- a phone bank of background checks.
"Is it ex-teammates, is it people you know on a coaching staff, is it guys who played with him and are now out of the game? You start building the pieces," Dipoto said.
Imagine hitching your franchise to a player who either will embarrass you off the field or turn off his teammates inside the clubhouse. What the Angels found when they called around was that, in addition to his well-publicized charity work, Pujols is a hard worker who blends easily with his teammates.
"All the things you would expect from watching him turn out to be true," Dipoto said.
Pujols is not terribly keen on doing interviews and he can come across as gruff or testy when he does, but to his teammates, he is viewed as a surprisingly humble superstar, an approachable veteran. He also plays the game with an edge, an attribute that could help an Angels team that at times last season seemed to lack intensity.
"You're going to have plenty of time when you're not on the field to chit-chat and talk," Pujols said. "When you're here, you're working. This is what gets you ready. If you want to have a championship ballclub, this is where it starts.
"If you don't take things serious over here, what do you think? You're going to embarrass yourself out there."
Said Angels reliever Jason Isringhausen, who played with Pujols in St. Louis: "Right now, he's very happy, very smiley. When it gets to game time, you won't see him smile much. There are going to be times when he won't talk to anybody. It's the way he is."
Pujols' presence was so large in the Cardinals' clubhouse that some people there wonder how his close friend, Yadier Molina, will cope with his absence. Molina, who referred to Pujols as his "big brother" at times, signed a five-year, $75 million extension with the Cardinals on Thursday. Molina's actual big brother, Bengie, who caught for the Angels from 1998 to 2005, is in Angels camp as a guest instructor.
"Albert showed my brother how to get ready for the game, how to work out after the game, the way you take losses so hard, the way you go at it during games, all that," Bengie Molina said. "My brother is a really, really good player because he had Albert to show him."
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Pujols seems to embrace the leadership parts of his job more than, say, Guerrero or other quiet Angels stars from previous generations did. Pujols says he approaches it as if he were a boss of a company with 500 employees.
"If you show up at 9:30 when they're supposed to be there at 8:30, what are you teaching your employees?" Pujols said. "You can show up one day late and, even though you're the boss, you're showing your players to do what you do. Believe it or not, our minds as humans want to do what the leader does."
Even after adding Pujols and veteran pitcher C.J. Wilson, the Angels still have a relatively young core. It could get younger next year if Torii Hunter, Erick Aybar and the three veteran relievers depart as free agents. The next generation of Angels will be formed in the likeness of Pujols, so the investment wasn't one to take lightly on any level.
Younger players will watch virtually everything he does. The Angels are hopeful Pujols' patient approach at the plate, his commitment to his defense and his base running will strike the right cords with younger teammates. He doesn't have to say a word to have an impact.
But with his mouth, Pujols could help break down barriers that inevitably form in clubhouses. On a back field one recent morning, Cuban slugger Kendrys Morales cracked a joke at the expense of Alberto Callaspo. Vernon Wells and Mark Trumbo, who were standing nearby, had blank expressions on their faces, so Pujols translated. Soon, everyone was laughing together.
Pujols grew up in the Dominican Republic but moved to the United States when he was 16. Unlike Guerrero, he speaks fluent English.
"The good thing about him is he really relates to Latins and Americans so well," Haren said. "He speaks perfect Spanish and perfect English. He's quiet, but he makes an effort to reach out and try to make everyone feel comfortable. When he was an up and comer, I think Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen taught him the right way to be."
Starting now, it's the Pujols decade in Southern California, so everyone had better start getting used to it.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.