Richard Justice

Consistent Pujols unfazed by expectations

Consistent Pujols unfazed by expectations

Consistent Pujols unfazed by expectations
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Expectations? Pressure? Albert Pujols swats both away as if they were batting practice fastballs.

"You guys are the ones that put expectations on people," Pujols said on Monday morning. "We know what we need to do. We just go out there and play the game."

Well, sure, but ...

"I try to do what I do," he said. "I'm not able to control [the expectations], so I concentrate on the things I can."

If any player can avoid the burden of expectations, it would be Pujols. It's not just his greatness that has defined his career. It's his consistency.

Over 11 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols averaged 43 doubles, 42 home runs and 93 walks. His career OPS of 1.037 is the sixth highest of all time.

He also led the Cardinals to seven playoff appearances and two World Series championships.

When the Angels lured Pujols away from St. Louis with a 10-year contract that could be worth up to $268 million, it appeared to shift the balance of power in both leagues.

The Angels may not be invincible, but if they stay healthy, if that deep rotation is as good as it appears to be and if Pujols does his thing, it's nearly impossible to see them not making the playoffs.

The thing is, virtually every player has an adjustment period, especially those who get the kind of contract that thrusts them into a hotter spotlight.

Pujols may indeed not be bothered by expectations. For 11 years, both his approach and his production have remained the same.

"Watch him swing the bat," Cardinals teammate Lance Berkman said. "It's the same swing every time. He almost never lunges, almost never looks bad."

Still, other players have been shaken by huge money. Even if they know better, they still subconsciously try to justify it.

At this time last year, the Red Sox pleaded with Carl Crawford to be the player he'd always been and nothing more.

"That's not human nature," Crawford said.

Now it's Pujols' turn.

"Why change the routine?" Pujols asked. "It's been working for 11 years. I don't want to change my preparation or what I do. I've had success."

He has also made a terrific first impression, showing up early, getting his work done and engaging his teammates.

"He has been wonderful," manager Mike Scioscia said. "When you get Albert in your own clubhouse, you can certainly see not only his presence but why he's maintained such a high level. This guy practices hard, whether it's on the defensive end or on a baserunning drill. It's great for everyone in that clubhouse to see, especially our young guys."

One of his new teammates is reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who faced Pujols frequently when he pitched for the Astros and Brewers the last four seasons.

Hawkins said that he never really wondered what Pujols was like. He'd played with Barry Bonds for the Giants in 2005, and figures the great ones are similar in a lot of ways.

"Guys that play at that high level, you kind of know what they're like," Hawkins said. "They take care of business. They're on a whole other level. That's what makes 'em good."

If Pujols is having trouble adjusting, he hasn't shown it. He seems relaxed and confident, prepared to do the things he has always done.

"It's great getting to know the guys," Pujols said. "It's awesome. I'm excited. After I signed, I got a little bit of time to marinate and to realize I wasn't with the Cardinals anymore. It took me maybe two or three weeks, and then it was time to get ready for Spring Training."

I wondered if being part of such an incredible World Series last fall seemed like a thousand years ago.

"You know what? Great memories," he said, "But I don't get caught up into those memories. It's a new season. Hopefully, we can make new memories. You don't get caught up in that stuff. You have to make sure that you move on. Those guys with the Cardinals will tell you the same thing. They were the world champions last year. It's time to move on. It's a new season."

The Angels appear to have no weaknesses, but in every corner of their clubhouse, there's talk about taking nothing for granted.

"I think everybody's hungry, including myself, even though I won a World Series last year," Pujols said. "That was last year. This year is a new year, and your mission, your goal, is to try and be in the postseason.

"It's fun every year. I had a great run in the city of St. Louis. There were a couple of years in a row when we missed the playoffs, but you know what? It was early in my career. That's what you play for, believe it or not.

"They can never erase that championship trophy. It's a great feeling. Hopefully, we can repeat that. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be one day at a time, one pitch at a time, one play at a time, one at-bat at a time, one game at a time. Flip the page and come back and try to do the same thing the next day."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.