Every time Albert Pujols got close to the metal crowd-control barriers, fans shrieked and shoved forward for autographs and high-fives. With his new red cap shielding his eyes from the brilliant Southern California sun, Pujols soaked in the cheers and the rays on his first day in his new home.
Baseball’s most feared slugger has arrived in Southern California, and his staggering new paychecks aren’t the only reason he left St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels.
Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson made their first public appearances with their new team Saturday at a raucous pep rally under the two giant hats outside Angel Stadium. Thousands of fans showed up to celebrate the Angels’ audacious signing of two elite free agents in their primes for a combined $331.5 million, forever changing the club’s identity and expectations.
Pujols pulled on his new white No. 5 jersey to adoring chants of ”We got Albert!”
”It was really emotional,” Pujols said of his decision-making process, which moved quickly over 36 hours earlier this week. ”But when you feel there’s somebody out there that wants you really bad and was doing everything he could to bring you to the ballclub, it’s pretty special.”
That somebody would be Arte Moreno, the Angels owner who landed the biggest free agent on the market with the second-biggest contract in baseball history, surpassed only by Alex Rodriguez’s reworked deal with the Yankees. Moreno’s offer of $254 million over 10 years was enough to persuade a three-time MVP who had spent his entire 11-year career in St. Louis to leave the Cardinals shortly after winning his second World Series title.
Moreno didn’t win Pujols’ services just with that jaw-dropping contract, both men claimed. Pujols had a near-sleepless night while he pondered leaving the Cardinals during his lightning courtship.
”I know people in the city of St. Louis think it’s all about money,” Pujols said. ”I have all the offers out there where people are throwing me a bunch of money, and they’re calling me (a) liar, and that’s all good. … It was tough, and I know what they’re going through. They’re losing somebody that’s been a part of the community, and I feel for that. Me and my wife, we felt that pain, too. But at the same time, when that decision came, I was being obedient. I didn’t want to go to a place that God wasn’t calling me to go.”
Moreno swayed Pujols and his wife, Deidre, during a lengthy phone conversation in which the outdoor advertising mogul emphasized the Angels’ commitment to charity work, the Orange County lifestyle, and a family atmosphere that will embrace Pujols long after he retires – along with the Angels’ elite pitching staff and solid roster run by veteran manager Mike Scioscia. Pujols’ deal also includes a no-trade clause and a personal services deal that could keep him bound to the Angels for life.
”We talked about the community, the lifestyle, the fans, and we made a deal,” said Moreno, who ducked out of a screening of director Lars von Trier’s film ”Melancholia” to make his final sales pitch on the phone in the parking lot.
”It just felt like it was really the time to make an investment into the next decade,” Moreno added. ”When you listen to him and watch him play, it’s unbelievable. There are 29 other teams that would love to have him. It’s just magical.”
Pujols and his wife were immediately impressed by Moreno’s frankness and friendliness, with Pujols saying he felt he knew Moreno well after just five minutes of conversation.
”What he made me feel in those phone calls with him was how bad he wanted me,” Pujols said. ”When I made the decision and he called me, he (told) me that I was one of his partners, and that means a lot.”
Cardinals fans have been dreading the possibility of Pujols’ departure ever since he failed to reach a contract extension with the club before the season began. Pujols acknowledged the same worries might have affected him when he managed a mere nine homers and 31 RBIs during the first two months of last season – a down year by his standards, but much better than any Angels managed in 2011.
”It was hard for me, too,” Pujols said. ”It’s been hard for almost a year. Obviously you don’t want to blame anything, because I’m a guy that doesn’t look for blame, but my first two months of the season, it was hard. It was emotional. You’re going to have some family and friends that agree with you, and some that don’t like it. I want the fans to know I love them, I respect how they treated my family, and I thank them for making me the man I am today. If it wasn’t for that city, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The Angels started to think they might land Pujols on Wednesday night, with Moreno excitedly briefing Scioscia moments before the door closed on the manager’s flight home from the winter meetings. Pujols made up his mind Thursday morning, informing his agent, Dan Lozano, he would leave St. Louis.
”I think Arte was able to touch a point of Albert’s heart that kind of cleared up some things for him,” Lozano said. ”He made (Pujols) feel wanted – made him feel it wasn’t just a business decision, but something very personal for Albert. That was something Albert wanted to hear.”
Although Pujols will be 41 in the last year of his decade-long deal, the slugger and the Angels both said his ability to contribute in his late 30s as a designated hitter didn’t factor into the decision. Pujols is an above-average fielder at first base, the least demanding defensive position.
”The way I take care of my body and prepare myself, I feel like I can probably play to 45, who knows?” he said.
Pujols’ decision electrified fans who descended on Angel Stadium to welcome the new players – and to buy No. 5 and No. 33 jerseys and T-shirts from the fully stocked team store. The Angels drew more fans than the beleaguered Dodgers last season for the first time in both clubs’ half-century together in Southern California, and Pujols’ move makes the Angels even more fascinating than the club that finished 10 games behind Texas in the AL West last season.
”Arte hit it out of the park,” said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who flew back into town from offseason training to join ace Jered Weaver at the news conference. ”We’ve really got a chance to do big things next year. We want that feeling like everybody expects us to win. With Albert in that lineup, having that four-man dominant rotation, we’ve got all that now. This is something I’ve dreamed about.”
Wilson didn’t mind being a virtual afterthought when he arrived back in his native Orange County with Pujols, his opponent in the World Series less than two months ago. After emerging as Texas’ ace last season, he left the Rangers for a five-year, $77.5 million deal.
”This is a team sport, and Albert is an entity much larger than me,” Wilson said. ”Right now, if he retired, he’s in the Hall of Fame. Every time this week when I saw even a hint on Twitter that he might be going to the Angels, I kept thinking to myself, `Man, I’d really like to be a part of that.”’