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Angels' Albert Pujols Show is cage-appropriate for a wide audience

BILL PLASCHKE

Excitement for Albert Pujols' debut is off the charts at Angel Stadium, where fans including owner Arte Moreno arrive early to watch batting practice, and plan to stay lateā€”all the way through October.

April 06, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • Angels first baseman Albert Pujols runs out of the dugout during player introductions before Friday's season opener against Kansas City.
Angels first baseman Albert Pujols runs out of the dugout during player… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

Two hours before its season debut Friday, Angel Stadium was overcome with a red-hot buzz, folks dressed in bright jerseys and dazzling hopes filling the lots and crowding the gates, when one hip dude in a red polo shirt and new goatee rushed past everyone and scurried down to the batting cage.

It was Arte Moreno, and on opening day, he was going to get his 240 million dollars' worth.

"I told my wife we had to get here early," Moreno said with a grin. "I didn't want to miss batting practice."

Around here, it's no longer batting practice, it's Pujols Practice, the best time of the day to watch the Pujols Presence knock balls off waterfalls and freeways.

It was the first regular-season appearance under the halo for the most angelic hitter in baseball, and everywhere Albert Pujols stepped, cameras clicked, people wearing his name on their backs cheered, and an owner swooned.

"Have you watched him? He's just a machine," said Moreno.

Behind the cage, between swings, the owner officially welcomed his biggest investment to the regular season with a giant hug — "I wished him the best, I wished him the very best."

Then the boss retired upstairs to spend the next six or seven months — like all Angels fans — holding his breath for exactly that.

Pujols was brought here from St. Louis this winter to make this team the best, the very best, and nothing less will fly.

"Everywhere in Los Angeles, you can feel a buzz, everybody talking about Albert and this team," said Moreno. "But now we've got to play the games."

For the next couple of hours, the Angels made their first Pujols game a throwback Angels game, plodding for seven innings, breathtaking for seven minutes, a 5-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on a night that showed the deep impact of the Pujols Punch.

He did nothing, but everything.

At the plate he was hitless in three appearances and helpless in one, lining out and fouling out and striking out before being intentionally walked to disbelieving boos from a crowd that had better get used to it.

In the field, his best play, a lunging stop of a wild throw by shaky new third baseman Mark Trumbo, could not save the first of Trumbo's two errors.

But everywhere else, the Pujols Product sold, energizing the crowd with his every step, keeping them loudly focused on a game against an anonymous young team until the Angels strung together some hits and speed to score five in the eighth.

"A lot of people were waiting for today," Pujols said afterward. "To get a win is great."

Upon arriving to cheer their new star, those lots of people didn't wait long

When Pujols was introduced at 6:50 p.m., the roar was so loud and long, he could quiet it only by tipping and waving his cap. The place was in such a stir, everyone then cheered when the premature appearance of a rumbling cargo plane overhead drowned out the final verse of singer David Cook's national anthem, ensuring that this was a night when nothing would be allowed to go wrong.

When Pujols came to the plate in the first inning to face Bruce Chen — against whom he had two homers in eight career at-bats — the crowd seen to lean toward home plate in unison, everyone literally inching toward the edge of their seats. It was less like the first game of a baseball season than the first round of a heavyweight fight.

Pujols responded by hitting a line drive so hard, Howie Kendrick sprinted off second base before shortstop Alcides Escobar grabbed it for the start of a double play.

"Nervous? Not really, the same nerves as the last 11 years," Pujols said. "I knew I was ready, wanted to do something special."

Nervous? Sure seemed like it. He tried so hard in his third plate appearance, he was swinging out of his shoes when he struck out wildly on three pitches from reliever Aaron Crow in the seventh.

"You try to put a good swing on every pitch, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," Pujols said. "I'll have other 0-for-3 games."

But he probably won't have any like this one, the first game of the rest of his life, the first step toward what the Angels hope is late October. Pujols was so beloved on this night, the stadium filled with howls even when he told a terrible joke as part of a between-innings video feature on the giant scoreboard.

"What do you call a crab who plays baseball?" he asked. "A pinch-hitter."

With that, he squeezed his hands together with a laugh. Give the guy credit for trying, even if his scoreboard moment was later overshadowed by the season's first appearance by the Rally Monkey, who is now batting 1.000.

"At the end of the day, you want to deliver a great baseball experience to the fans," Moreno said. "Albert Pujols is obviously that kind of superstar."

At the end of Pujols' first day, with fans forgetting the 0 for 3 and concentrating only on the "Ohhhh," the boss was right.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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