TEMPE, Ariz. — Decked out in Angels’ gear from head to toe, Albert Pujols looked like the same slugger whose swing in St. Louis became as symbolic as the Gateway Arch.
With a halo-topped “A” logo on his cap, Pujols, his massive chest and arms filling out every corner of his red shirt, sat behind a microphone and excitedly announced the start of a new stage of his career.
“Here I am,” he said.
And here he goes.
Arriving just as the morning sun crept above the horizon, and more than a week earlier than required, Pujols reported to training camp Monday with the Los Angeles Angels, who will pay the three-time NL MVP $240 million over the next 10 years to be the face of their franchise — and to hopefully bring them several World Series titles.
“I’m just really excited to be here, it feels good to be outside,” Pujols said during a news conference held at a nearby luxury hotel. “I’ve been training for three months, hitting in a cage in St. Louis, and it feels good to be here for some spring baseball.”
Although only the Angels’ pitchers and catchers had to be at camp this early, Pujols wanted to be there from Day One as well. That’s how the 32-year-old has done it since breaking into the big leagues in 2001 and he wasn’t about to change his routine.
He also felt it was important to begin bonding with his new teammates, some of whom were caught staring at him from across the clubhouse.
Driving a black Mercedes still tagged with Missouri license plates, Pujols pulled into the players’ parking lot at 7:15 a.m. There were only a handful of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of the nine-time All-Star, who helped lead the Cardinals to a championship last season before leaving the only baseball home he had known.
Pujols stopped in the equipment room and shook a few hands before heading to the clubhouse, where his locker is flanked by veterans Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter.
“The guys are awesome,” Pujols said. “They well-received me as soon as I walked in there.”
Shortly after dressing, Pujols made an early request to one of the team’s media relations members.
“Let me take a peak of the ballpark,” he said before walking out a side door for his first look at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels’ spring home, which is sure to be packed with fans throughout March.
It didn’t take long for Pujols to feel like he was part of the club.
During manager Mike Scioscia’s first team meeting, Pujols’ cellphone rang, earning the superstar his first petty fine, which according to a team official, will require him to buy his skipper lunch.
No major league manager had a more productive offseason than Scioscia. Angels owner Arte Moreno spent $320 million in signing Pujols, left-hander C.J. Wilson (5 years, $77.5 million) and reliever LaTroy Hawkins (1 year, $3 million).
Scioscia, entering his 13th season with the Angels, will have the luxury every game of penciling Pujols’ name onto his lineup card in the No. 3 spot and at first base.
“His whole game, not only being a presence hitting in the middle of the lineup, running the bases. He’s an offensive machine,” Scioscia said. “He’s a special player and special players are usually multidimensional, and Albert is.”
Scioscia said unless there’s a need because of injury he has no plans to use Pujols at third, where the Cardinals had him for seven games last season.
After taking some swings in an indoor cage, Pujols was driven in a golf cart to one of the back fields on the team’s minor league complex. With over 100 fans doing everything possible to get a close look from behind the right-field fence, Pujols fielded some grounders before taking his first outdoor batting-practice cuts of the spring.
With Moreno, trainers, coaches and instructors watching, Pujols ripped a few fastballs from hitting coach Mickey Hatcher for line drives and then launched a deep shot over the fence in left, the ball slicing between two giant palm trees and disappearing into the brush.
“It’s too early for that,” a smiling Hatcher yelled as Pujols switched spots with Kendrys Morales, who will likely bat in the cleanup spot behind him.
Jumping to a new league and facing unfamiliar pitchers might unnerve some players. Not Pujols. He intends to dig into the batter’s box the same as always, square up a fastball the way he has for years and pad statistics that are likely to grace his plaque in Cooperstown.
“The game doesn’t change,” he said. “When I got into the big leagues in 2001, I didn’t know anybody, so that’s how I’m going to take it. It’s a different league, but in 2001 I didn’t know any pitchers around the league. It’s going to be a little different, but when it comes to playing the game, nothing has changed except that we have a DH in the American League.”
Pujols has joined a new team, new league and new city, but he will always have fond memories of his years with the Cardinals.
“You know what, I had a great time in St. Louis,” he said. “Obviously, 11 years, you don’t just flip the page and move on. There were some great moments. I was able to accomplish two World Series and that experience is something I want to bring to this city, to Anaheim, to this ballclub and have hopefully better seasons than I had in St. Louis and hopefully more championships.”
Pujols said he’s fine physically and dismissed the idea that a wrist injury that nagged him early last season lingers.
“Just look at my numbers after the wrist injury,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
And neither does his decision to leave St. Louis, right after the Cardinals won the championship.
There was a point where it looked as if Pujols might stay with the Cardinals, and be that rare player in the era of free agency to spend his entire career with one team. However, the second-largest contract in baseball history along with the chance to prolong his career as a DH and an additional 10-year personal services contract with the Angels was too much to resist.
It was time for him to go.
Pujols is pushing on.
“I can’t go back and feel sorry,” he said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s like another chapter in my life and it’s time to open a new one. I don’t want to go look over my shoulder and regret the decisions I made. It was the best for me and my family “