Pujols healthy, and raring to go

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols is walking around the Los Angeles Angels' training camp with an extra bounce in his step this spring.

Self-confidence plays a part in the transformation, for sure. But it also puts a man's mind at ease when he can slip his foot into a baseball shoe and doesn't feel as if he's sticking it in a pizza oven.

Pujols, ever the stoic, generally kept to himself during a trying 2013 season that resulted in 99 games played and career-low numbers across the board. Now that it's safely compartmentalized in the past, he is free to reveal the extent of his ordeal.

The plantar fasciitis that began tormenting him in 2004 never screamed louder than last summer. Maybe it was just wear and tear over time or, as Pujols suspects, the hard spring training fields in Arizona helped aggravate his condition. Whatever the reason, Pujols was a portrait in teeth-gritting before the injury forced him to shut it down for the season in late July. The word "discomfort" can't even begin to describe what he endured.

"There were times when I got up in the middle of the night and I would put my foot on the ground and I was waiting for it to pop," Pujols said. "That's how tight it was. I've described it to people like somebody is sticking a knife or a needle in your foot, and the needle is on fire. It constantly burns. I wouldn't wish it on anybody to have to go through that."

Life is more comfortable this spring for an abundance of reasons. One cloud lifted shortly before spring training, when Jack Clark publicly retracted his comments from last summer accusing Pujols of using performance-enhancing drugs -- and Pujols accepted Clark's apology and dropped a defamation lawsuit that he had filed against the former big leaguer and St. Louis radio talk show host. Three weeks later, Pujols chooses not to revisit the episode.

All the vibes since Pujols' arrival at Tempe Diablo Stadium have been positive.

He's lockering next to his old St. Louis pal and World Series teammate David Freese, who came over from the Cardinals in a trade in November. He has quickly struck up a rapport with Don Baylor, who replaced Jim Eppard as the Angels' hitting coach in October. And Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia is big on family, so Pujols' 13-year-old son, A.J., will spend some time in camp this spring bonding with dad in the workplace.

He needs his space

Each morning, Pujols arrives early and takes 20 to 30 swings off a tee and a few more against soft tosses before the Angels gather in the clubhouse to go over the day's activities. Then he takes part in infield and batting practice before hopping on a bus or returning to the clubhouse for a breather. In a perfect world, he'll appear in 23 or 24 of the Angels' 30 Cactus League and exhibition games and be locked in for the season opener against the Seattle Mariners on March 31.

From what the Angels have seen thus far, it's a good bet Pujols will not finish with a lower OPS than Coco Crisp, James Loney or Nate Schierholtz again this season.

"The game is a lot more fun for him right now because he can do the things he's good at," Scioscia said. "This guy is a special player, and we've only seen the tip of what he can do. He's a Gold Glove first baseman. He runs the bases well. He's going to be a different player this year because his tools have been rebuilt. He's able to move, he's able to run and he's stronger in the box. He's excited about that, as we are."

Pujols' personal history and body clock have taught him that it's best to come to camp at 85 to 90 percent and gradually work his way up to triple digits. "Otherwise, you'll be toasted by April," he said. His résumé includes nine All-Star Games, three MVP awards and the fourth highest OPS in history (1.008) for a right-handed hitter behind Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby, so it's hard to quibble with his philosophy.

Still, for all the accolades Pujols received leading up to his current 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, he's not always the most approachable of stars. On the spectrum of Albert Belle's "don't come near my locker" glower and Torii Hunter's 24/7 gregariousness, Pujols can be gracious, accommodating and closer to the Hunter end of things when he's in the mood. But when he's focused on business, he might as well post a "no trespassing sign" on his locker as a public service.

Even his teammates know enough to give him his space. Freese sees Pujols' softer side when his teammate sits beside him in the clubhouse and exchanges text messages or talks on the phone with his wife and children. At other times, Pujols attains a level of concentration that few players can match.

"Albert's an absolute animal," Freese said. "The first day he walks into a clubhouse, he's got one thing on his mind. Or maybe two things: His family and baseball.

"I think Albert sees this as a job. He puts a lot on his plate. He's one of the best players to ever play this game. And when you get to that level, this game changes a little bit. I think he takes it personal. He understands how he can change games when he's in the lineup producing. That's why he works his tail off. Obviously, Albert is a very spiritual guy. God is No. 1 in his life and he's going to put it all out there. He's a guy who lives his life to the fullest, for sure."

Payoff on their investment

The Angels devoted the two winters prior to this one spending to the fullest, signing Pujols and outfielder Josh Hamilton to multiyear deals worth a combined $365 million in the effort to win the hearts and minds of Southern California baseball fans. The plan didn't work out so well last summer, when the Angels fell off the map early and finished 18 games behind the Oakland Athletics at 78-84.

A lineup with Pujols, Hamilton and Mike Trout at its core suffered a 34-run drop-off from 2012 (from 767 to 733) and ranked 10th in the American League with 164 homers -- fewer than the Mariners and those supposedly pitching-and-defense-obsessed Tampa Bay Rays.

Hamilton arrived with a new bulked-up look this spring and was raring to go, until a strained calf put him out of commission for a while. Although the Angels expect him to be ready for the season opener, they're going to let him proceed at his own pace.

"If it takes a couple of weeks, it takes a couple of weeks," Scioscia said. "If it takes three weeks, it takes three weeks. It will heal on its own time."

Pujols, meanwhile, is on the verge of achieving a major milestone. He's one home run away from tying Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff at 493 and needs eight to become the 26th member of MLB's 500-homer club. If he can go deep 30 times this season, Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey also will fall by the wayside.

Pujols developed such a sense of reverence for Stan Musial during his time with the Cardinals that he didn't like being called "El Hombre," because there was room for only one "Man" in St. Louis. So he can appreciate the hallowed company he's about to join, and eventually surpass.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie and say, 'I don't care about it,'" he said. "It's nice. It's a great accomplishment."

Yet Pujols is well aware that he'll perform against a backdrop of lowered expectations until he puts together one of his old St. Louis tears. During his time with the Cardinals, Pujols raised the bar so high that his .285, 30-homer, 105-RBI debut in Los Angeles was generally perceived as a disappointment. Now that he's regarded as merely human, most observers would consider those numbers a nice comeback season.

Try wrapping your mind around this nugget: Pujols, who was setting the annual standard for righty hitters before Miguel Cabrera came along, hasn't appeared in an All-Star Game since 2010.

"You always want to show you're worth the money that they pay you," Pujols said. "Obviously, it's been tough for me, and it was tough for Josh last year. Hopefully I have eight more years to go here. I always say to people, 'Don’t look at my first two years with the Angels. Just look at what I've done at the end of my contract, and you can judge it then.'"

Pujols, intense and quietly defiant, already knows where he stands on the subject of his future.

"To me, it's about being healthy," he said. "I've got that gift and talent. I know I'm going to hit in this game until I'm 50 years old."