ANAHEIM, Calif. – Maybe it's the bats, probably not, but it's not a bad place to start.
Every few weeks, Erick Aybar will mention to the guy in the next locker that he could use another half-dozen or so, of the black ones, "Handcrafted for Albert Pujols" right there on the barrel, custom cut, 34 inches and 32 ounces, like they were made to be put into his hands, and Albert Pujols himself will nod and place the order.
Ask who buys and Pujols side-eyes Aybar and the questioner, which brings a wicked grin from Aybar.
"They're like two dollars, man," Aybar protests.
They'd known each other some before Pujols became an Angel 2½ years ago. They'd nodded their hellos, both sharing Dominican blood and familiarity and all, but nothing like now.
"Like my father," Aybar said about Pujols. "Like Vladdy [Guerrero] was."
So Pujols will point his forehead toward the cages and they'll go hit, Aybar on the Pujols program, carrying one of the Pujols bats. He had happened to pick up one of the Pujols models during spring training, waved it around, swung it a few times in batting practice, found he loved the extra ounce of heft and through a half-season is on pace for career highs in home runs and doubles while maintaining his career averages in batting and on-base percentage.
There was some disappointment in the clubhouse when Aybar, 30 years old, in his ninth big-league season and never an All-Star, was left off the American League team. But Aybar didn't pay it much mind. Instead, he said, he'll take his 7-year-old daughter, Ahaieri, and 6-year-old son, Eiren, whose names he has tattooed in cursive on the insides of his wrists, to Disneyland.
"I want to be that," Aybar said. "One day, an All-Star. This year it was close. But, that happened."
He shrugged, like no big deal.
If one gauges a man by his OPS or WAR, Aybar leads qualified AL shortstops in both. Same with, love them or not, RBIs. He doesn't walk much, but hardly strikes out either. It doesn't take long to find a defensive metric that says Aybar is the best in the league, or very nearly the best, at that, too.
This is, however, Derek Jeter's year, and warranted. And, apparently, Alexei Ramirez's, too, by player vote. And it's Aybar's to kill a little time on the twirling teacups, which makes him smile some more, as there are worse alternatives to a few days in Minneapolis.
"There's a lot of good players going to the All-Star Game," he said. "They deserve it. My thinking is to win. Playing my game."
Maybe he gets swallowed up in the Mike Trout parade, and the Pujols and Josh Hamilton fascinations. In among them, however, Aybar has grown into a sound and important part of the Angels' rebirth. Only three others on the roster – Howie Kendrick, Jered Weaver and Kevin Jepsen – were Angels the last time the team went to the playoffs in 2009. And while it was no secret Aybar could have been had for a front-end starter in a trade last winter, there apparently were none to be had, and it seems now the Angels are better for it.
For Aybar is having one of his best seasons – both sides of the ball – and the Angels are, through three-plus months, the second-best team in the game. They're not unrelated.
"He's one of the best shortstops in the game," Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes said. "He should be on that list of guys."
John McDonald has spent most of his – and Aybar's – career in the American League. Given the night, he currently plays third base to Aybar's shortstop. He called Aybar, "One of the best defensive shortstops in baseball right now," and, "a championship-caliber shortstop on a team that has those aspirations."
Now that the Angels have found their baseball way again, doing things like pitching, defending and running the bases with some abandon, Aybar seems important again, the way he was on the Angels teams last decade. The ones that were a little more athletic, precise and competent. The ones that won.
If he goes largely unrecognized for that, Aybar seems fine with it. He's playing well and the Angels win most nights, and an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon found him badgering his neighbor for another supply of bats. He could order his own, of course, with his own name on them, but he likes the wood and the grain that the iconic Pujols demands, and he likes the loopy Pujols signature on the barrel, what that signature stands for, and there's no reason to change anything now. Besides, they're free.
"Albert helps me a lot with hitting," he said. "How to play the game. Runners in scoring position, my approach. Lots of things."
So, yeah, maybe there's a little something in the bats.
"They're nice," he said, smiling. "I'm going to keep the same bats."