Albert Pujols: Angels in the presence of greatness

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 11:20 PM

Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball. And while he puts up huge stats, his greater impact might be the way he influences his teammates.

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Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols

Photo: Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press - Ap

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TEMPE, ARIZ.

Torii Hunter sat in front of his locker in the Angels clubhouse, and pointed out the No. 5 jersey hanging in the next stall. The former Twins outfielder had claimed the prime territory adjacent to Albert Pujols for a simple reason.

"He makes everyone around him better," Hunter said.

That's what the Angels are counting on, what they spent $240 million on. The three-time MVP shocked the sport by leaving the reigning world champion for a team that hasn't made the playoffs the past two seasons, signing a contract that will pay him $30 million when he's 41 years old.

And the reason goes beyond the 40 home runs and 121 RBI that Pujols has averaged over his 11-year career.

"The primary effect Pujols is going to have on our lineup is hitting in the middle of it, sure," manager Mike Scioscia said. "But he'll also bring the intangibles of his focus, at-bat to at-bat, and his understanding of the strike zone, and his willingness to work on his craft. Sometimes when players are around that, it rubs off."

It already has, Hunter said.

"You just watch him -- he takes it so seriously," said Hunter, who believes Scioscia will bat him fourth or fifth, behind Pujols in the third slot. "I've never played with anybody of that caliber. He's the best player I've ever played with. ... And he's always one of the first guys in here, getting himself ready. People notice that."

People notice everything about Pujols -- it's hard not to. On the day of the Angels' first spring game, souvenir stands around Diablo Stadium were stuffed with Pujols posters and pennants, T-shirts and jerseys, and banners decorating the concourse were covered with a photo of Pujols watching a blast sail into the stratosphere. And with all the evident excitement comes expectations.

"People expect big things from me, I understand that. It's been that way since the day I got to the big leagues," Pujols said, dripping with sweat after a session in the batting cages. "It doesn't have anything to do with the money, to me, because it was like that before I had the contract. It's always been like that. I'm here to win, to bring a championship to my team, and that's my only focus."

That's why he is religious about his daily workouts, why he arrives in the clubhouse at dawn, why he rides the bus to road games in the spring instead of playing only at home, as many star players do. For a quarter-billion dollars, he figures he should set an example.

"I had nothing to do with acquiring this talent. It was a gift from God. But I would insult him if I wasted it. I work hard to get better, every day," the Dominican slugger said. "I know some guys watch me, my routine, how I prepare, and that's good. I'll set an example, and we'll all get better together."

Pujols getting better is a frightening thought, considering that, with 445 career home runs, he has an outside shot at surpassing Barry Bonds' career record of 762.

"We're absolutely getting the best batter's-box player in baseball," Scioscia said, "and while he's in the prime of his career."

Could be, though there are already some signs of aging. Pujols missed 15 games because of a fractured forearm last year, and his batting average (.299), on-base percentage (.366) and slugging average (.561), while all still among the game's best, also were career lows. He drew only 61 walks, or barely half of the 115 he took in 2009. With a brilliant NLCS performance against Milwaukee, he helped the Cardinals reach the World Series, but -- beyond one spectacular three-home run outburst in Game 3 -- did little to help St. Louis win it, going 1-for-19 in the other six games.

But Hunter sees that as proof that Pujols' mere presence lifts those around him.

"It changes the dynamics of every at-bat, the way a pitcher pitches to you," Hunter said. "And we feel it already. We get to feel like, 'Wow, Albert's in our lineup.' It pumps you up, takes you to another level. It's like a domino effect -- from one to nine, everybody looks a little better."

And the future Hall of Famer himself? When he's at his locker, he's a funny, humble teammate, Hunter said. But at the plate, he has an intangible quality that hasn't begun to fade.

"It's just fearful to pitch to him," he said. "You want that fear in a pitcher."

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