Albert Pujols changes Angels' course

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The military flyover has become something of an Opening Day tradition at Angels Stadium. Each year it's a different plane coming up from nearby March Air Force Base to buzz the crowd and mark the beginning of another season. In years past, like the team that plays here, the planes have been fast and sleek, like the B-2 Stealth Bomber.

But on the day Albert Pujols made his debut for the Angels, there was only one fitting choice: The monstrous Boeing C-17 Globemaster that is both breathtaking and a little scary.

As the C-17 rumbled over the scoreboard in right field before the Angels' 5-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Friday night, you weren't quite sure whether to duck under your seat for cover or snap a picture. Which is about the same way Angels fans reacted to Pujols when he was introduced before the game and before each of his four at-bats.

Oh, they stood and cheered wildly, but the "Let's Go Pujols" chant took some time to get going as if it wasn't clear whether they could or should call him Albert just yet.

Despite all the excitement on both sides, this arrangement is going to take some time to get used to. Fans here are used to their Angels being scrappy, station-to-station underdogs. They go wild for the Rally Monkey and buy up Scott Spiezio and Reggie Willits jerseys.

Yes, once upon a time these same fans cheered for Vladimir Guerrero and Reggie Jackson. But this is different. Pujols is different. What he means is different.

Because by signing him the Angels didn't just sign the best hitter of his generation or a guy they can count on to produce 30-home run, 100-RBI seasons for the next five or six years. (Or 10 years, if you want to stay on owner Arte Moreno's Christmas card list).

Signing Pujols changed the identity of the Angels, as a franchise and a team.

The Angels aren't just contenders to win the American League West anymore; they're among the favorites to win a World Series. The target is on their backs now, too, not just the monsters from the AL East. They will break the market for a guy they want and not just find reasons why it doesn't make financial sense.

They're expected to score in bunches, not just one at a time. Small ball, station-to-station, hit-and-runs -- all the hallmarks of manager Mike Scioscia's teams remain. But they are just options now, not what the Angels are forced to rely on.

"This team is built differently than what we had," said former Angel outfielder Tim Salmon, one of the stars of the franchise's 2002 championship team. "We really had to grind it out in a blue-collar style of play. It was nine innings of intense focus.

"This team just has so much talent in its pitching rotation and up and down the lineup, you almost can get away with a few bad outings because there's so many players to pick it up."

That's exactly what happened Friday night. Starter Jered Weaver was masterful, needing just 97 pitches to strike out 10 batters over eight innings, but Pujols and the fearsome offense shot blanks until the eighth inning, when they pounced on Aaron Crow and Greg Holland for five runs. And even then, the Angels scored those runs mostly the way people are accustomed to them scoring: three straight singles and a three-run triple.

Aside from the ovations from the crowd, Pujols actually had a quiet night, going 0-for-3 with a walk, strikeout, pop fly and line drive.

"It's not going to be the only time I go 0-for-3 this year," he mused afterward.

But that's kind of the beauty of what the Angels have put together this year. And it will take some time to get used to. This team has a lot of ways to win now. Pujols will be great, but he doesn't have to be. The Angels' pitching can dominate, their power hitters can mash, their speed can stun.

In years past, there was only a narrow road to travel. Everything had to go right. Everyone had to come up big. The Rally Monkey had to be busy.

"That year we won," Salmon said, "we were just winning all these late-inning games. That's when you looked around and said, 'We've got something special going on character-wise.'"

Since then, that's what the Angels have been. The players might have changed, but their identity hasn't.

The last two years, though, it didn't work out. The identity, the fight and passion was still there, but the horses weren't.

So Moreno and new general manager Jerry DiPoto rebranded.

Pitcher C.J. Wilson, the Angels' other huge free-agent acquisition this winter, compared it to the way the Texas Rangers were transformed in recent years when he and Colby Lewis turned in back-to-back 200-inning seasons.

"It reminds me of Texas, where we always had the hitting, but then me and Colby each threw 200 innings and people started losing their minds," Wilson said. "Every team needs something. This team [the Angels] needed offense last year. They always had the pitching."

So now they have Pujols. That's been a reality here for a few months but it still feels like it's sinking in. During the adjustment period, it might feel a little jarring. He changes a lot, all over for this franchise.

But like the C-17 rumbling low over the scoreboard in right field, it's going to be hard to look away.