TEMPE, Ariz. – Truth is, he hasn't felt much like a machine lately.
What with the knee and the foot, and what that can do to a swing, even his, and yet Albert Pujols is too proud for that kind of wistfulness. He wouldn't allow it, not then, when his season went dark in late July, and not now, on his first day of camp.
"Those excuses," he said, "you are never going to hear that come out of my mouth. … I struggled because it's part of the game."
Not his, though. Not for the better part of a dozen years, while he was becoming one of the better right-handed hitters – hitters, period – anybody had ever seen. Then he decided to spend the second half of his career in Anaheim, and first the knee and then the foot, and two years into a decade-long commitment Pujols has been that Pujols for half-a-season.
He arrived this week for his third spring training as a Los Angeles Angel. Four reporters were waiting for him, and three pretty much had to be there. The Angels haven't been to the postseason since 2009 and if that doesn't seem like such a long time, you don't know – or work for – Arte Moreno. They've generally been picked to finish behind the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers again, which doesn't mean much except that the world has become accustomed to the Angels being just mediocre. Maybe expecting them to be just mediocre, because the vibe is different, the momentum is gone, the pitching has flattened, and wasn't this team – this organization – something special? Pujols was going to help make the Angels capable again, and then Pujols and Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout were, and now Pujols is coming off his second surgery in a year, and Hamilton will play away from his worst season as a professional.
All of which leaves the Angels exactly where everyone else is, which, for the moment, is six weeks from opening day, needing a few things to go right, hoping against the catastrophic injury, and thinking, "yeah, we got a shot."
The difference for the Angels (assuming they get any pitching at all) could be Pujols, who is expected to hit third, behind Trout and ahead of Hamilton. He is, he said, healthy. He initiated his offseason hitting program early, he said, to cover those 250 at-bats he lost last season. He's in shape, down a few pounds and eager to get back at it with a body that will allow him to perform. He'd survived as long as he could with the plantar fasciitis, and if it felt even half as bad as it looked, he should have been applauded for getting to the mailbox and back each morning.
These things happen. He'd played at least 143 games in every one of his first 12 seasons, at least 154 in eight of them. Then he played in 99, hardly any of them without gritting his teeth.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "It sucked sitting on the bench for 2 ½ months last season. … It was painful, but I've played with some pain in the past. No excuses. I go out and play. I knew that I was hurt. I still felt like I could help the team. That's the chance I took. Obviously it cost me.
"[But] as long as I stay healthy, I know I'm going to hit."
He lifted two bats from his locker, blond-handled and black-barreled. He patted them with gobs of pine tar, then smeared in the pine tar with his fingertips. Then he wiped his fingers on the carpet. This is where it starts, with people wondering if he's slipping, some sure of it, and him prepping his bats, allowing those people their ignorance, and him going off to find a batting cage. They don't know him.
He'd start with his hands, their position. It always starts there. He'd stay inside the ball. He'd swing until the ball bucket was empty, then start over. He'd inch toward opening day. He'd inch away from last season, get back to playing whole again and feel the game under his feet again.
Most know Albert Pujols as the guy hitting the ball in the gap, driving in a run or two, tongue twirling along his lips as he seeks an edible strike. The guy with the MVP trophies, eight home runs from 500, uncanny in his ability to put a bat barrel on a baseball.
But this guy, the man in the 21 hours around the ballgame, in the four months around the baseball season, this is Pujols. Think what you want. Believe what you want. He's gonna go hit.
"Doing good," he said. "Very good."
No excuses, he said. Last season happened. It hurt. He hated it. That was then.
"But, look what I was able to do on one leg …," he said.