TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's close to 2 p.m., in the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium. The field has been dragged, the tarp sits on the pitcher's mound and almost all of the 63 other Angels players in camp have driven back to their condos.
Albert Pujols walks in from the trainer's room, bulky ice bags taped atop each of his 33-year-old knees and sweaty workout clothes still on his back. Like always, he got here at 6:30 a.m., when the sky was dark, the wind chill was fierce and the facility was barren. And as usual, he'll leave a little after 3, still plenty of time to rest up for another day of doing it all over again.
Pujols has won two World Series, three Most Valuable Player Awards, signed one of the largest contracts in history and could be a Hall of Famer in five years if he retired today.
But something keeps pushing him.
"I'm still hungry," he said. "I still need to be here early, do my work, do my preparation. That's something that is never going to change. When you see it changing, that's probably because I stopped falling in love with the game; that the love is fading away. I don't think that's going to happen, because before that happens, I prefer hanging up the jersey."
Pujols is still in love with the process, the arduous grind that rewards patience and demands an unrelenting commitment.
And like so many of the great ones, he's greedy.
"I only have two fingers that I can wear a ring on," he says, holding his hands out in front of his face. "I have 10, bro."
But Pujols will tell you -- almost every time you talk to him -- that he isn't driven by numbers, which is hard to believe from a guy who is so self-aware. Told that 2013 will likely be the year he reaches 500 homers (he's 25 away) and 1,500 RBIs (66 to go), Pujols acts oblivious.
"Man," he says, exhaling loudly and shaking his head, "I wish I could explain it to people. I don't play for numbers, man. I'm weird like that. It's that I know I have so much career ahead of me, that when I'm done, hopefully if I'm alive, I'm going to have plenty of time to enjoy what I've done in this game. But right now, I don't know, that's who I am. I want to concentrate on what I have to do this year, not think about 500 home runs. That's another distraction, and you don't want any other distractions. This game is hard as it is. It's hard. It's a tough game. And if you bring more distractions, you're making it tougher."
Last year -- really for the first time, perhaps -- Pujols learned just how hard this game can be.
It was his first month with the Angels, on the heels of a $240 million contract and all the expectations that come with it, when one of the greatest hitters of his generation forgot how to do what he does best. Pujols navigated through those first six weeks like one of those NBA players in the movie "Space Jam," as if someone came from outer space and sucked away his powers. He was swinging out of his shoes, barely drawing walks and never going deep, batting .194 with zero home runs by the time manager Mike Scioscia gave him a mental break on May 5.
But then, suddenly, he was Albert Pujols again. From the middle of May to the end of the season, he batted .312 with a .964 OPS, 29 homers, 93 RBIs, and somehow finished with numbers -- .285 average, 30 homers, 105 RBIs -- that closely resembled his career norm.
"Not everybody can do what I did last year -- hitting .170 in the month of May and then hitting .280, almost .300, at the end," Pujols said.
Navigating through the darkest slump of his career and finding a way to rise through the ashes, Pujols believes, is one of his greatest triumphs.
"I think I did something pretty special and it was a great year," he said. "But sometimes people only want to focus on the negative."
It's easy to panic with Pujols, because he's on the books for nine more years, because he's still cautiously recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery -- Opening Day is still the target -- and because his numbers have dropped each of the last three years.
But it's also enticing to think about what Pujols can do with a normal April -- now that he's more familiar with his surroundings, and now that Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton are deflecting attention.
"Last year, even during the season, it seems like everybody wanted a piece, you know what I mean?" Pujols said. "That's tough. This year, it's a little more relaxed. Less interviews, less photo shoots and things like that."
Pujols is one of the most charitable athletes around and fully aware of the responsibilities that come with fame. But he's very selective about when he makes himself available and won't let anything stand in the way of his routine. It's why he's so difficult to track down for interviews, why you don't see him in commercials and why "congenial" isn't a word anyone would use to describe him.
In some ways, though, he believes he's misunderstood.
"Like I said the other day with Trout -- you have to learn how to say no sometimes, because those are distractions you don't want in your game," Pujols said. "That's why a lot of people read me wrong. They'll say I'm moody and this and that. But when I'm doing my work, it's my work. If I want to be successful, I have to focus on my job 100 percent. And then later, if I have time, then I'll do it. But that's how my mom and dad raised me."
That laser focus has long been ingrained in Pujols, but his exterior has been hardened by a perception that the media roots for his shortcomings because it's the bigger story.
He sees the start of last season as the perfect example.
"That's the reality," Pujols said. "It's sad. It's really sad that people sometimes prefer you to fail than to have success. It's sad, that sometimes it has to be like that. Not everybody. I'm not going to throw everybody under the bus. But sometimes I think that, that there's people who just want you to do bad to write a big story on that. It can't be like that. You can't wish bad upon people, because it's going to come around and bite you."
This is that "me against the world" mentality a lot of athletes have, the best of whom are able to channel into success. Pujols' belief in this is unwavering. So is his commitment to the craft. And so is his approach to leadership, which won't change even though the vocal presence of Torii Hunter is now gone.
"I'm going to be the same guy," Pujols said. "If I have to help, if I have to say something, I'll be there. But I don't have to do things so people can say, 'Look at him, he's a leader.' I don't have to open my mouth. I let my work do that for me."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.