Pujols arrives at Cards camp five days early

JUPITER, Fla. -- After helping the St. Louis Cardinals win their first World Series in 24 years, Albert Pujols put together an equally impressive offseason.

Last week, Pujols became a U.S. citizen when he aced the test after months of preparation. He skipped another potential highlight, a trip to the White House, to embark on a humanitarian mission to his native Dominican Republic.

"It was pretty busy," Pujols said Wednesday. "Obviously, those are dreams come true."

During that whirlwind, the NL MVP runner-up was getting ready for spring training. He arrived at Roger Dean Stadium with his young son, A.J., in tow five days ahead of the report date for the full squad.

Pujols actually has been in town since Friday and had been working out at a high school with his personal trainer. He was among about 20 Cardinals hitting the field on an informal basis Wednesday in an early start to their title defense.

No NL team has repeated as the pennant winner since Atlanta in 1996 and there have been seven different World Series winners this decade. The Cardinals won only 83 games, fewest ever by a World Series winner, and nearly collapsed in the closing weeks of the season.

"We probably didn't have the best year with our record, but who cares?" Pujols said. "But that's over, all of that's in the past. Now I'm here in camp and celebration is over."

It was an extended one, though, capped a week ago by a citizenship swearing-in ceremony at the Eagleton Courthouse in St. Louis. About two dozen relatives and friends were in attendance.

"Obviously, I probably will never work for the government, but the U.S. opened the door for my family," Pujols said. "It was awesome. It was a lot of hard work, but I came through."

Pujols, 27, had a practical reason for taking the test. His resident alien card was about to expire.

"Every question was tough," Pujols said. "It was crazy."

He kidded reporters: "Probably things you guys wouldn't be able to answer."

Last month's mission to the Dominican Republic took the same amount of time to plan. Accompanied by six doctors, he spent five days helping impoverished children, and also organized some games.

"Obviously it's a pretty neat thing going to the White House, but I'm glad I didn't miss my trip," Pujols said. "We went down there to work and that's what we did.

"We saw some bad things but it was a great experience. It was awesome."

After connecting with his homeland, Pujols is eager to make a return trip.

"Obviously having all the success the last six years in the big leagues, my life changed," Pujols said. "But it doesn't change the tender heart that I have for those people down there.

"I want to go back so bad that if I could do it every month, I'd do it. When you close your eyes and think about it, you want to cry about it."

The off-field activities haven't prevented Pujols from reporting in top shape, with none of the foot, back and hamstring issues that have dogged him in recent year. He noted, however, that there hasn't been much baseball-related activity yet.

"I feel too strong right now, but it's better to be ready," Pujols said. "We'll see if I can hold on hopefully, for the whole year."

Catcher Yadier Molina and outfielders Chris Duncan and Skip Schumaker were among other early position-player arrivals. Virtually all the pitchers were in camp ahead of schedule.

Pitching coach Dave Duncan, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, oversaw Wednesday's workout. Manager Tony La Russa is due to arrive just in time for the first workout.

"I think it's abnormal to have this many guys here this early," Duncan said. "And they've been here for a while.

"I think they recognize it's going to be a competitive camp and it's important they be in shape and get their feet on the ground."