PHOENIX -- A little more than four months ago, Albert Pujols was playing in Game 7 of the World Series. Monday afternoon, he was playing in a little ballpark surrounded by desert buttes and cacti, with fewer than 4,000 fans in the house.
He still had butterflies as he stretched in the outfield grass before the Angels’ 9-1 win over the Oakland A’s, Pujols’ Cactus League debut.
“This is my 13th spring training and I still feel it,” Pujols said. “If you feel like that, it means you’re getting yourself ready for the game. That’s something my dad always told me.”
And, besides, everything is new for Pujols this spring. He signed a 10-year, $250 million contract in December to change teams, leagues, time zones and media markets. After 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, who play their spring training games in Florida, Pujols is now an Angel, with 60-plus new teammates (for now), new surroundings and a whole new league full of pitchers.
The tiniest first step came Monday, when he went 2-for-3 with a couple of line-drive hits and an RBI, batted in each of the first three innings and played the field for four, two of them behind another Angel making his debut, pitcher C.J. Wilson.
“It was great,” Pujols said. “In spring training, you want to have good success and feel good about yourself for the season, but the most important thing is to prepare.”
Pujols didn’t win three MVP awards strictly on talent. The Angels already have gotten a sense of his drive, because he has been among the first players to arrive at their spring training clubhouse since the week before position players were required to arrive. They’ve seen his fierce, almost intimidating, concentration in the batting cage.
Now, they’re getting a sense for how intently he studies pitchers. Pujols already has become a regular visitor to the office of video coordinator Diego Lopez and Monday you could see him watching intently from the on-deck circle. The Angels play in a four-team division and face Oakland 19 times a year, so Pujols could see each of the three pitchers he faced Monday -- Brad Peacock, Grant Balfour and Fautino De Los Santos -- multiple times in the regular season.
The process of collecting mental notes has already begun.
With the rise of interleague play and Pujols’ extensive experience in the World Series and All-Star Games, changing leagues isn't what it once was. But March could still have a little extra significance for Pujols.
“There’s more crossover than there used to be, but there are still going to be guys he’s going to have to study,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “But he pays attention, so he’ll figure it out.”
Pujols doesn’t sound worried about learning a new set of pitchers and, considering he batted .329 as a rookie and has a career average of .328, you tend to want to believe him.
“I’m going to show up to the ballpark early, watch my video of the guys I’m going to face, maybe go to bed thinking of the guys I’m going to face the next day and maybe go to the ballpark thinking of the guys I’m going to face that day,” Pujols said. “Nothing is going to change just because I’m in a different league.”
Add one more trait to the list the Angels are compiling on their new superstar: singlemindedness.