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Albert Pujols brings fans to Angel Stadium, even in December

December 11, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Newly acquired slugger Albert Pujols pauses for photos and autographs as he's introduced to the media and public during a news conference at Angel Stadium on Saturday.
Newly acquired slugger Albert Pujols pauses for photos and autographs… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Two hundred fifty-four million dollars to play baseball.

And now this.

Saturday brought blue skies and temperatures near 70, gently swaying palm trees, two huge red caps with large A's bracketing the entrance to the stadium they define, and nearly 5,000 fans screaming his name and gushing their affection.

Albert Pujols must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. Never before had a team presented a more fitting name for a player's situation.

It is Angel-red heaven now, no matter how much that makes Tom Lasorda squirm.

On a day that certainly seemed to shine down from somewhere onto the heretofore second fiddle in Southern California major league baseball, there were smiles and hugs all around.

Pujols was an Angel. The impossible — the unthinkable — had happened. The player who had hit three home runs in one World Series game, who had hit 32 or more homers in his last 11 seasons, who had batted at least .300 and driven in at least 100 runs in his first 10 seasons as a St. Louis Cardinal and then slipped all the way to .299 and 99 runs batted in this year, had flown the coop and landed in Anaheim.

Owner Arte Moreno had asked him to go west, young man. And Pujols had.

The celebration of the signing of Pujols, as well as that of star left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson, had the parking lots at the Big A buzzing hours before the 11:30 a.m. pep rally start time. Fans filled the plaza, and a surprising number had already purchased the newly coveted No. 5 Angels jersey. You had to feel sorry for Jeff Mathis, the now-departed banjo-hitting catcher, who wore that number most recently. Mathis' No. 5 undoubtedly sold dozens.

It was a day when the collective grin was as wide as all of Orange County. The 2012 Angels baseball season was being celebrated a full two months before the opening of spring training. There were no long walks back to the dugout, no umpires to kill, no gloomy clubhouses. The Angels had not won the World Series, but now that seemed merely procedural.

Manager Mike Scioscia, one of Saturday's coat-and-tie dais crowd and the one who, given the ingredients, now has to make the bread rise, addressed that nicely during his remarks: "Our job is to get this team to play as well as it looks on paper."

Star outfielder Torii Hunter, as excited as the fans, cautioned that there was work ahead and pointed out how baseball had looked at the New York Yankees a few years ago and expected them to play in every World Series.

"They haven't won it all in a while," Hunter said.

Realism was far outstripped by excitement. The holiday season provided a perfect song for the Angels' organizational mood. Joy to the world.

Pujols was the man of the hour, but Moreno, who had taken the $254-million plunge, wasn't far behind. Wilson, clearly happy to return to Southern California and play on a team that was good before and now adds Pujols, called Moreno "a rock star." Pro sports owners usually evoke slightly less-effusive descriptions.

One fan held up a sign that read: "Arte Moreno, the Santa Claus who gave Halo fans the best present ever."

When he was introduced to speak, the chants went from "Arte, Arte" to "Thank you, Arte" to "We love you, Arte."

The chants from other baseball owners may be a bit different at their next get-together.

Saturday, that mattered little. Moreno started his speech by joking that he had been "talking to Albert and C.J. about a loan." Later, away from the hype and happiness, Moreno said he clearly knew the risk he had taken and said that, often in the past he had looked at the budget and pulled back. He added that the Angels "have done very well financially and have no debt."

He obviously meant no debt except for players' salaries.

Pujols said all the right things, including how difficult it was to leave St. Louis. He praised Moreno, whom he had never previously met and with whom he negotiated by phone, for the positive and energetic way he went about getting this deal done. Pujols had barely been in Southern California for 24 hours, yet he did his best to embrace the moment, telling the gathered fans, "I can't wait to play for you guys."

Later, at a separate gathering for print media, Pujols said he hadn't really factored in the potential for finishing his 10-year contract, in his early 40s, as a designated hitter in the American League, and added, "The way I feel, the way I think I take care of my body, I might be able to play until I'm 45."

He will not be a glib quote machine the likes of Hunter and Wilson. But he showed pride and passion when asked to talk about his foundation and the remarkable work it does, both in the United States and his native Dominican Republic. He has four children, and one of his daughters has Down syndrome. His foundation benefits Down syndrome.

In the end, Saturday at the Big A was a day to celebrate likelihoods and anticipate futures. Great things from this team have gone from possible to probable.

The fans knew it and couldn't get enough of it. They hung around for hours after the microphones were turned off, getting autographs and snapping pictures.

Which was quite fitting because, for the entire Angels organization, Saturday was a day of wine and poses.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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