Albert Pujols powers excitement
The slugger amps up Anaheim as he starts spring training as an Angel
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols is a Hall of Fame lock and the greatest player of his generation, but those nine All-Star Game appearances and three MVP awards don't place him above the law of the land. So when Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia was addressing the team Monday morning and Pujols' cell phone went off in the clubhouse, he was subject to an automatic fine.
Never mind that several other Angels players committed the same transgression, or that Pujols' phone was on vibrate and could barely be heard. Rules are rules, and even $250 million industry icons aren't immune from the clubhouse telecommunications ordinances.
Pujols laughed upon recounting the incident during his introductory spring training news conference Monday afternoon. To the outside world, he can appear prickly and standoffish at times. But in the workplace, he's Exhibit A that true greatness has the capacity to blend.
"He's one of the guys when he's in the room," said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto has a feel for the dynamic in the "room" from eight seasons as a major league reliever. About his new superstar, Dipoto observes, "He's there to prepare. He's there to work. He takes it very, very seriously. He's committed to winning. It's a trait that great players have.
"He has a great moral compass. I'm sure there's a flaw in there. We just haven't been able to figure out what it might be yet."
Pujols' arrival at camp helped drum home two big points: He still looks good in red, and he is not like everybody else.
San Francisco catcher Buster Posey and St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright, terrific players who are rehabilitating from injuries and pivotal to their teams' fortunes this season, arrived at spring training and met the press amid the spartan surroundings of the dugout and the clubhouse. Pujols, in contrast, schlepped up the hill from the ball field to the Marriott Buttes resort for his coming-out party. The Angels reserved the hotel's amphitheater for the occasion, and a half-dozen cameras and 40-50 media members and technicians watched as Pujols held court in front of a red background dotted with the Angels' team logo.
Pujols' 30-minute question-and-answer session failed to spawn any new forehead-slapping revelations or new windows into his soul. For the purposes of team and player, it was just another signpost in the transition from lifelong Cardinal to the Angels' new face of the franchise.
The closest Pujols came to getting misty or philosophical came at the very end of his discourse, when he reflected on the lifelong friendships he made in St. Louis and the events that led to his departure in December. The Marlins fell by the wayside, the Cardinals were only willing to go so far, and Angels owner Arte Moreno jumped in vigorously thanks to the team's reported 20-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox.
"It didn't happen," Pujols said of his return to St. Louis, "but I can't go back and feel sorry now. It's time to move forward. That was an old chapter of my life, and now it's time to open a new one. I don't want to look back and regret the decision I made. It was the best decision to make for me and my family."
There's no question that the sense of enthusiasm in Tempe has been ratcheted up to otherworldly levels. You can sense it on the drive up 48th Street, past the Angels banners draped on the poles beneath the street lights. Pujols' banner sits directly between the one for Jered Weaver, the 2011 AL Cy Young Award runner-up, and C.J. Wilson, the team's other big free agent acquisition this winter. Even the presence of a sign for Vernon Wells, who had a .248 on-base percentage last year and has three years and $63 million left on his contract, can't kill the mood.
You could sense the excitement on the back field at Tempe Diablo Stadium, where fans crowded the railings for a glimpse of Pujols and Kendrys Morales taking batting practice. The addition of Pujols coupled with a return to health by Morales, who has been out since May 2010 after suffering a broken leg, could elevate the Angels' lineup from mediocre to "Oh my gosh."
As Pujols' new Southern California followers prepare to embrace him, his old loyalists in St. Louis have had to gradually let go. Outside the Marriott, Charles Randall, a 29-year-old home inspector from Gilbert, Ariz., stood in the parking lot in hopes of snagging an autograph or a little eye contact with Pujols. He was wearing a blue Cardinals cap and had a No. 5 Pujols Cardinals jersey draped over his shoulder.
Randall comes from Milwaukee, but became a Cardinals fan thanks to his wife's allegiance to the team. He has perused the Cardinals message boards, and is convinced the Redbird fan base has come to grips with Pujols' departure and is ready to move forward without rancor. Randall expects Pujols to return to St. Louis one day to have his number retired, and he expects to be right there giving him a standing ovation.
"I don't think the sentiment of real Cardinals fans is, 'We hate him, good riddance,' and things like that," Randall said. "It's more, 'Thanks for what you did for the franchise.' If he would have gone to the Cubs, I think there would have been a whole lot more resentment towards him."
Pujols, for his part, is braced for both professional and cultural adjustments. He admits to a fondness for In-N-Out Burgers, but plans to refrain from making them a dietary staple now that he's relocated to California. And he'll have to feel his way along under a new manager in a different city, clubhouse and league. For the moment, it's comforting to know that when he wants to retreat into his cocoon and get his work done, the gregarious Torii Hunter will be available to placate the media's desire for perspective and colorful Angels quotes.
Pujols expects to make his share of designated hitter appearances before his 10-year contract is complete, but he defers to Scioscia on the question of how many DH-related respites he might enjoy in 2012. Before he's finished playing, lots of milestones await. He enters this season with 445 home runs, and the 2012 edition of the "Bill James Handbook" gives him a 20 percent chance to break Barry Bonds' career record of 762. James also gives Pujols a 56 percent chance to collect the 927 hits he needs to reach 3,000 for his career.
While Pujols picks off historical icons and helps the Angels challenge Texas for preeminence in the American League West, he understands the residual demands incumbent upon a player with a 10-year deal with an additional 10-year personal services contract. When the Angels made that $250 million investment, they were looking for more than just a great player. Pujols plans to continue his charitable work with his foundation and find a way to strike the requisite balance between producing on the field and serving as an Angels goodwill ambassador everywhere else.
"First of all, I need to make sure that I prepare for my job," Pujols said. "But just because I'm with a different ballclub, I'm not going to change the way I am. God gave me some talent on the field and blessed me with a great wife and a great family, and that's part of my responsibility -- to give back. I expect to be busy on and off the field."
Now that the hellos and the hoopla are over, Albert Pujols is ready to grab a bat and dole out some punishment. It's time to check the contract talk and the cell phone at the door, and do what he does best.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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