TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton go back a ways. In the spring of 1999, they met during a pre-draft workout at Tropicana Field in Florida. They were both supreme talents but came equipped with markedly different expectations.
Hamilton, a North Carolina native, was considered a once-in-a-generation prospect, with speed and power to burn and (reporters loved to point out) size-19 feet. Pujols, a native Dominican who played high school ball in the Midwest, showed a knack for swinging the bat at Maple Woods Community College in Missouri. But a lot of scouts wondered which position he would ultimately play, and he fell to St. Louis in the 13th round of the draft.
Pujols overcame the skeptics to win three MVP awards, make nine All-Star teams and emerge as a worthy heir to Stan Musial’s legacy in St. Louis. Hamilton, meanwhile, took a more circuitous route to prominence after signing with Tampa Bay as the No. 1 overall pick in ’99. His journey was marked by drug and alcohol dependence, multiple tattoos and enough personal setbacks to suggest he might be a lost cause.
In recent years, the two players traded their favorite Bible verses during brief encounters at first base and exchanged hugs at the All-Star Game. Now they’re swapping memories as teammates and new running mates in the middle of the Los Angeles Angels’ batting order.
“Back then, he was really skinny, and people said, ‘This guy is going to be the first pick,'" Pujols recalled Thursday. “I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Then I saw him take batting practice and I was like, ‘Are you serious?'"
Replied Hamilton: “I don’t remember anything. I took a little different route than Albert did, and I forgot a few things along the way.”
Pujols and Hamilton met the media Thursday afternoon in a made-for-TV news conference on the eve of the Angels’ first full-squad workout of spring training. They sat on a podium in front of an Angels logo and flanked center fielder Mike Trout, the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year and runner-up to Miguel Cabrera in the MVP race.
Let the nickname contest begin. The Angels’ lineup has enough star power that the team needed to book a conference room at a hotel adjacent to Tempe Diablo Stadium to accommodate it.
Each player brings his own compelling storyline to the table. Hamilton, who signed a five-year, $125 million contract in December, is 20 pounds lighter this spring and eager to show he’s the Triple Crown candidate of April, May and June rather than the guy who faded in the second half, botched a fly ball in a pivotal regular-season game against Oakland and left Texas to a torrent of boos after an 0-for-4 performance against Baltimore in the wild-card play-in game.
Pujols, entering the second year of a 10-year, $240 million contract, overcame a dreadful start to hit .285 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs. He underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure in October and plans to ease into his workouts gradually this spring. One thing Pujols won’t abide is questions about his excruciating April in 2012. He makes it clear, for all intents and purposes, that he’s not here to talk about the past.
Trout, precocious WAR machine and the face of baseball’s future along with Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, is 10 pounds heavier this spring and braced for the realization that he won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this season. He has set the bar exceedingly high.
The Angels, as a team, have reason to believe they’ve upgraded a lineup that ranked third in the league in runs scored (767) and OPS (.764). But it remains to be seen if they have the pitching to keep pace. Get past Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson atop the rotation, and Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas have a lot of convincing to do in the Nos. 3-4-5 spots. In addition, Ryan Madson, the team's projected closer, has encountered a speed bump in his comeback from Tommy John surgery: He is experiencing soreness in his right elbow and will not be ready by Opening Day.
But the Angels should be intriguing to watch, both on and off the field. Clubhouse dynamics change from one year to the next, and the Angels are in the midst of a transition with the arrival of Hamilton and the departure of the always loquacious Torii Hunter to Detroit through free agency. When a team is burdened with expectations this high, it helps to have a resident “voice of reason” who can court the media and provide perspective. Trout is too young to assume that burden. Hamilton has enough on his plate and Pujols has never shown the patience, temperament or gift of gab to be a media darling.
For those seeking subtle clues on a potential pecking order of the big three, Pujols had three bottles of water in front of him to only two for Hamilton and Trout at the news conference. But Hamilton was clearly the most relaxed and jocular participant. Thirty seconds before the event, which was broadcast live on Fox Sports West, Hamilton turned to Angels public relations man Tim Mead and asked, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?”
People close to Hamilton said the opportunity to play in a lineup with Pujols and Trout held considerable appeal for him during his free-agent search. Hamilton’s history of addiction has created some dicey moments for him, and he’ll rely on his family, religious faith and the help of accountability partner Shayne Kelley to craft a positive storyline in Anaheim.
Hamilton’s fellow Rangers went to great lengths to look out for him during his time in Texas, and he’ll continue to require help from his teammates to stay on the right path in his new, more fast-paced West Coast environs. Hamilton knows Wilson from their time together in Arlington and has a nice rapport established with Pujols. That’s a start.
“As you get to know your teammates, you understand what they stand for, how they act and what they do,” Hamilton said. “You find guys that you put in your circle who will help hold you accountable. Hopefully, by the way you carry yourself, guys will either want to be in your circle, or they’ll respect you enough to not put you in a situation that’s going to cause you to stumble and fall.
“Guys like Albert and C.J. get it. They understand. I think everybody will understand when the time comes.”
For what it’s worth, Pujols and Trout were equally effusive in recalling their reactions to Hamilton’s December signing and what it will mean to the Angels in 2013 and beyond.
“I remember last year sitting at the house and all of a sudden Albert’s name popped up with the Angels, and it was a shock to me,” Trout said. “I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ The same thing happened this year with Josh. I texted him to congratulate him and he texted me back and said, ‘Get your legs loose. That’s all that matters.’ I just have to get on base and let them hit me in.”
The preliminaries are now complete, and it's time to play ball in Tempe. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton kicked around a few memories Thursday. With the help of a certain outfield phenom, they’ll spend the seven months trying to forge some new ones.