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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Pujols carries weight of contract on shoulders

Justice: Pujols will shoulder weight of contract

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Pujols carries weight of contract on shoulders

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

I was chatting with Carl Crawford one day last winter when his telephone began to vibrate.

He picked it up, read the text message and smiled.

"It's Tito," Crawford said.

The left fielder's new manager, Terry Francona, had just sent him the latest in a series of text messages leading up to his first Spring Training with the Red Sox.

Those messages were brief and upbeat, and they hit a common theme.

Be yourself.

Francona reminded Crawford that the Red Sox wanted him to be the same player he'd been for nine years with the Rays, and nothing more.

The Red Sox did not want more home runs or fewer strikeouts. They didn't want more stolen bases, more walks, more of anything.

Boston simply wanted Crawford to be himself. In nine seasons, he'd averaged 11 triples, 12 home runs and 45 stolen bases, and was coming off a campaign in which he hit .307 with 47 steals, 19 home runs and 104 strikeouts.

Money changes almost all of us in some way, and in the case of Crawford, who is tightly wound and a relentless workaholic, the Red Sox didn't want him to attempt to justify the seven-year, $142 million deal he'd just received.

Still, no matter how many times Francona told his new star to relax and do the things he'd always done, Crawford looked very much like a guy trying to show he was worth such a payday.

His .255 batting average was 38 points below his career average. His other important numbers were also down, and so this offseason will be devoted to remaking Carl Crawford to look like, well, Carl Crawford.

Jason Giambi had similar problems in his first season with the Yankees, joining a long list of players -- Barry Zito, Vernon Wells, Mike Hampton, Carlos Beltran and plenty of others -- who seemed to play with the weight of the world on their shoulders after signing for huge money.

That's the challenge Albert Pujols will be facing in his first season with the Angels.

Pujols' 10-year, $254 million contract is the second-largest in baseball history, and that's just the beginning. He's changing teams and leagues, and with Angels fans already lining up to buy tickets and merchandise, expectations will be insane.

For 11 seasons, Pujols thrived in a cocoon constructed by manager Tony La Russa to support and protect him. He was the most beloved player in a city that loves its baseball team like few others.

If he didn't run hard to first base, if he didn't always have time for the media, it did not matter in St. Louis. All that mattered was that Pujols played for the Cardinals and that he delivered with numbing consistency.

To fans who've watched him perform so brilliantly, who've seen his mental toughness and his grind-it-out approach at the plate, it's tough to imagine anything rattling Pujols.

But after turning down a $190 million contract from the Cardinals last offseason, Pujols played through 2011 with the pressure of expectations on him.

La Russa adamantly defended his star, saying the only decline in production could be traced to a series of nagging injuries. Otherwise, he said, Pujols was as great as ever.

Now, the three-time National League Most Valuable Player will be seeking another comfort zone, and his legendary mental toughness will be tested in a different way.

Over the past few years, the Angels gained a reputation of being the team that couldn't close deals. They expressed an interest in Crawford, Mark Teixiera, Cliff Lee and others, but didn't get any of them.

This week, Los Angeles didn't just close on a couple of deals. The Halos closed stunningly fast and appear to have changed the balance of power in the American League.

After missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since Mike Scioscia's first two years as manager (2000-01), the Angels signed both Pujols and top-of-the-rotation starter C.J. Wilson.

Team officials said they sold more than 1,000 season tickets in the first 24 hours after the signings, and a franchise that has drawn more than 3 million fans for nine straight seasons has a chance to sell out every seat.

With those sellouts come expectations, and those expectations ride primarily on the wide shoulders of Pujols. He has met every other challenge during his amazing 11-year career, and so it's reasonable to assume he'll meet this next round as well.

But this is the kind of challenge he has never had before, the kind that other star players had struggled with. Pujols surely seemed to welcome it when he put on that Angels cap for the first time Saturday afternoon. He looked like a guy well on his way to finding a new comfort zone.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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