'Special' debut eludes Albert Pujols in Angels' win

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Here's what Arte Moreno is promised for his $240 million:

A few World Series forecasts in March, a full stadium on opening day, thousands of parading fans in No. 5 jerseys, a happy television partner and a middle-out lineup card routine for his manager.

"I went right to the three hole and put his name in first," Mike Scioscia said, "then filled in around it."

He's promised something like the most professional ballplayer in the sport, a being whose singular focus, unbending routine and nose for the big moment spurs arguments of man-or-machine.

"Machine," Torii Hunter declared.

And, well, that's about it.

The rest will come, or it won't, and it'll be a decade in the deciding. What becomes of Moreno's Los Angeles Angels rests in part with Albert Pujols, of course, but no more than it will with the other $150 million or so of roster space, or with the other titans of the American League, or with some circumstance and luck.

As if to prove that, the Angels were held scoreless through six innings by Kansas City Royals lefty Bruce Chen in their season opener on Friday night, and another inning by the Royals' bullpen, just to remind the folks of the life they'd presumably left behind.

But, for this moment, it's about Pujols, the career .328 hitter, the three-time MVP, the two-time world champion, the man/machine who broke Moreno's free-agent losing streak and made the Angels relevant again.

For it was Pujols who generated the buzz all winter, and Pujols who is on the billboards (first as El Hombre, which was vetoed by El Hombre himself, then as The Big A), Pujols who dominated spring conversations and Pujols who, it was promised, would transform the Angels' offense into something presentable.

He was hitless in three at-bats in his debut, and was walked intentionally in the middle of the Angels' five-run eighth inning. They won, 5-0.

He also pulled a loud and standing ovation from Angels fans when he trotted from the dugout to the first-base line during pregame ceremonies. When the PA announcer paused to allow the appreciation to linger, Pujols doffed his cap, and the ovation broadened.

Pujols had at least 25 family members and friends in that crowd, all of them presumably having shifted their lives and/or allegiances from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Angels.

It felt like the start of an era, so larger than the usual Game 1. For this franchise, something like the day Vladdy walked in, or Mo Vaughn trudged in, or Tim Salmon arrived, or Jim Abbott took the ball.

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But, perhaps, with more certainty.

"He's a winner already," Hunter said. "So, it's in him."

He is, after all, the best player in the game. The most relentless player in the game.

When asked later for the memory he would take from his first regular-season day in a new city and a new uniform under a new owner, he said, "The win."

After some thought, he added, "And a great ceremony. We had a lot of people waiting for this day and it finally arrived."

[ Related: Albert Pujols' Angels debut in pictures ]

He'd made the choice to come after a restless December night, and picked up his life and moved it to Southern California. He'd stayed for a time with his agent, Dan Lozano, in Marina del Rey, some 40 miles from Angel Stadium, in a place where from the rooftop deck he could peer across the beaches of the Pacific Ocean. His wife and children arrived this week, and they'll live for now in a resort closer to the ballpark.

It's coming an inch at a time, Pujols' familiarity with an unfamiliar place in for him an exhilarating time. Yes, he went oh-for-three. Yes, he hoped for more.

"I wanted to do something special," he said.

Yes, there is plenty of time for that.

He hasn't yet found the neighborhood in which he'll raise his children, or spend his days, or rue the occasional misguided swing. It's out there.

"When the time comes and the perfect place is there, we'll deal with that," he said. "I'm going to be here a long time. It's no time to rush."

Not on April 6, with the whole season out in front of him. And not in the first handful of what Moreno and the Angels assume to be thousands of games and many thousands of at-bats, though those aren't promised either.

[ Season predictions: Experts split on Angels' chances in top-heavy AL West ]

"Yes," Pujols said, "today I didn't get any hits. Tomorrow I might not get any."

He raised his eyebrows.

"I might go four for four," he said.

That, maybe, is what makes Pujols Pujols. That is, his belief in the purity – and the rigorousness – of the process and his willingness to live with the result. Teammates have been enthralled by, of all things, his work in the batting cage, where he'll take a few swings, then step back and assess what was good and what was not. Then, satisfied, he will continue.

At the end of the day, let's say after Game 1, let's say in Anaheim, let's say in Angels colors, it all works the same way. Then he continues. It's what he promises.

"Every time I wear this jersey, I'm going to be proud," he said. "I might not be alive tomorrow. I mean, you never know."

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