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ALBERT'S SECOND ACT
TOM VERDUCCI
March 26, 2012
AFTER THE GREATEST 11-YEAR OPENING A HITTER HAS EVER HAD, ALBERT PUJOLS IS STARTING OVER WITH THE ANGELS. HOW CAN HIS NEXT DECADE POSSIBLY MATCH UP WITH THE LAST? IT ALL STARTS WITH A DAILY SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT SWING
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March 26, 2012

Albert's Second Act

AFTER THE GREATEST 11-YEAR OPENING A HITTER HAS EVER HAD, ALBERT PUJOLS IS STARTING OVER WITH THE ANGELS. HOW CAN HIS NEXT DECADE POSSIBLY MATCH UP WITH THE LAST? IT ALL STARTS WITH A DAILY SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT SWING

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A framework of a deal was put in place: 10 years, $240 million, the milestone bonuses and a 10-year, $10 million personal-service contract that kicks in when the first deal ends. Says Pujols, "The second phone call [Moreno] made determined everything. I was still praying about it and asking God to help me with the decision because I got to the point where it was very frustrating. Me and my wife got on our knees. And we feel pretty peaceful about the decision that we made."

Ted Williams played 10 more seasons after he was Pujols's age (two of them interrupted by more military service) and batted .336 with 23 homers per year. Hank Aaron played 11 more seasons after he was Pujols's age and hit .285 with 32 home runs a year. Neither had the advantages of mild California weather or, except for Aaron's final two seasons in Milwaukee, the less strenuous option of being a DH. "There is less of a concern with attrition with Albert," Angels manager Mike Scioscia says, "because of his work ethic, his talent and his health."

Says Mihlfeld, "He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and is constantly improving his nutrition. I think he's driven to show everybody, not just the Cardinals, that this a great deal and he's got a lot left in the tank."

For years Moreno worked hard to position the Angels as a team of greater Los Angeles, not just Orange County. Pujols instantly made them the national brand they'd never been. Immediately their scheduled prime-time national TV appearances tripled. The length of Pujols's commitment to the Angels—20 years—ensures that he will be the face of the franchise. It is a responsibility that he embraces. "Well, I had that responsibility ever since I wore the Cardinals' jersey in 2001," he says. "It's part of my responsibility to play the game the right way and be an example to the community and to kids who look up to me, just like when I was a little boy and looked up to big league players. I know how many kids out there want to be like Albert Pujols."

On the first day Pujols worked out in an Angels uniform, in Arizona, Mihlfeld watched the first baseman field ground balls and take batting practice under brilliant sunshine. The trainer saw something he hadn't seen in years: the happy kid from back in Maple Woods. It was unmistakable even from a distance. Berkman, a teammate with Pujols last season only, had come to regard his hardened manner (the only thing more arresting than Pujols's grip is his do-not-disturb face at work) as an asset. But with an unpleasant free agency behind him and new challenges in front of him, Pujols has a new bounce in his step, not just because he's lost 10 pounds since the World Series.

"When the external motivators become new, you get reinvigorated," says Berkman, the NL Comeback Player of the Year in '11 after 12 years in Houston and a brief stint with the Yankees. "New team, new city, new purpose. I lived it. I would bet you're going to see a resurgence from Albert over the next couple of years."

There is something else at work here, something that was visible at that cage inside the brick building in suburban St. Louis this winter. It is the simplicity of that swing, a swing that hitting coaches around baseball use as a template. Just last year Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, while trying to tame the hand movement in the swing of struggling young outfielder Peter Bourjos, conjured the Pujols Swing as the how-to guide. "I always use Pujols," says Hatcher. "The biggest thing you do as a hitting coach is get your hitters to slow down. Pujols is quiet. I think that's why he's so consistent. Even the drills he does—his philosophy is very simple."

"I love the tee," Pujols says. "It's better than soft toss to get me prepared. What I find with soft toss sometimes is they throw you one ball down the middle, one ball down, one ball up. But to build a quality swing you want to build it off the tee because the ball isn't moving. You can't blame that guy who's throwing to you. You only blame yourself."

Over the winter, hammering away atop his anvil, Pujols found that swing again. "I feel awesome, I'm telling you," he says. "It looks like the old me. When you take 50,000 swings a year, you know your swing."

And which swing stored in those yearly files on his laptop is his own template? Which model year?

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