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Albert Pujols probably won't energize L.A.'s Latino community

The Dominican slugger's baseball skills might draw more attention than his heritage after his decision to join the Angels. Pujols, however, could be labeled as a mercenary for leaving St. Louis.

December 08, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Albert Pujols, who played high school and college baseball in Missouri before joining the Cardinals, could be labeled a mercenary by the many fans who supported him in St. Louis.
Albert Pujols, who played high school and college baseball in Missouri… (Bill Boyce / Associated…)

When Hector Soto answered the phone at Mama Fina's Dominican restaurant early Thursday, he did so with a question.

"Did he sign?" Soto asked in Spanish.

There was no need to ask who "he" was. Albert Pujols was coming to Southern California with a fresh $254 million to spend. And for Soto that was good news — not only for the Angels but for his Bellflower business as well.

"It's great that they gave that money to a Dominican," Soto said. "He'll come to the restaurant."

Twenty-five miles down the freeway, at Eddie Banuelos' four-chair barber shop in Corona del Mar, the talk was less about money or ethnicity and more about what Pujols would bring to the Angels' lineup.

"Everybody likes a winner," the barber known as Fast Eddie said. "In the shop especially, everybody's going crazy. I think we're going to go all the way this year."

Soto aside, Pujols won't energize L.A.'s Latino community the way Manny Ramirez did — and certainly not the way Fernando Valenzuela did. Of the 7.7 million Latinos that call Southern California home, less than 6,000 of them are Dominican, according to census data.

But, as with Ramirez's decision to leave Boston, Pujols' decision to leave St. Louis has the potential to do significant damage to his reputation by painting him as a mercenary.

Pujols played high school and community college baseball in Missouri, where he met his wife. He spent his entire professional career with the Cardinals, who rewarded him by upping his salary in each of his first three seasons, giving him a seven-year, $100-million deal three years before he was eligible for free agency.

And fans in St. Louis rewarded him by supporting his restaurant and numerous charitable endeavors.

He was a Cardinal the same way Tony Gwynn was a Padre or Cal Ripken an Oriole. Had he stayed in St. Louis, he might have left a larger legacy than Stan Musial.

Instead, the 10-foot statue of Pujols that was unveiled outside his restaurant last month was protected by a security guard Thursday.

"Albert Pujols, in the sense of being a part of our draft, being someone who comes up through our system and then produces to the level of greatness that he did, you really build a bond with a player like that," a downcast Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said. "And it's more than just player-front office. He was really such an integral part of this community and this organization."

Then again Missouri is the Show-Me State and the Cardinals apparently didn't show Pujols enough money.

But St. Louis' loss is Southern California's gain. At least that's how Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto was framing it.

"Albert's proven over the course of the last 11 years to be the best player in baseball. And whether it's offensively, overall impact, we feel like Albert brings so much more than just a bat in the lineup," he said. "You're talking about a Gold Glove defender, the leadership, the makeup, the character of the human being, the impact in the community — all of the things that he has consistently brought to the table through the years make this so much more than just a great baseball player.

"How it affects our market, Southern California, winning breeds interest. And we are setting ourselves up to start next season with an opportunity to be good."

That, ultimately, will be more important to the team and its fans and the Angels' bottom line than whether Pujols has a restaurant, a charity or knows all the words to the Dominican national anthem.

"Manny was marketed to everybody," Tomas Benitez, a cultural worker and lifelong Dodgers fan from East Los Angeles said about Ramirez.

"It's going to be about a winning team. He's the best ballplayer in baseball and that is the attraction.

"That he's Latino is cream on the frosting. We've really kind of moved past that point."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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