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T.J. SIMERS

Angels slugger Albert Pujols shows off affable side

First baseman jokes around easily with a reporter who had been warned that Pujols isn't exactly fond of the media.

June 02, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • After a slow start with the Angels, slugger Albert Pujols has shown the form that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters.
After a slow start with the Angels, slugger Albert Pujols has shown the form… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

I'm meeting Albert Pujols for the first time.

I've been warned by others he will be abrasive, standoffish and distrustful.

No interest in double dating, so what do I care?

I just want to know how old he really is, so like everyone else new to town, right from the start he's going to get the Page 2 treatment.

"What year were you born?" I begin.

"Same as you," Pujols replies. So that would explain his slow start, the Angels signing a 61-year-old first baseman.

"Except I'm in better shape than you and still playing," Pujols says. He's laughing and no one warned me he's also capable of doing that.

I've done my homework, and the prevailing opinion is he's not very lovable. Word is the St. Louis media coddled him, Manager Tony La Russa protected him, and so contrary to the public image of a religious and charitable superhero, he's not.

"You need to get to know me," Pujols says. "If I just went with what everybody's telling me about you ..." and there's no need for him to finish the sentence.

So we spend time getting to know each other. I tell him with exaggeration what a huge day it is now that he's hitting .240.

"Awesome," he deadpans, and it sure doesn't take him long to get it.

In return he tells me he takes his job seriously, very seriously, and while he's all for fun, I worry if I close my eyes and open them, Jeff Kent will be sitting here.

Pujols says his task is not to lose focus, and while the game might seem easy for him, he knows just how far he has come as the 402nd player selected in the 1999 draft.

"I don't take anything for granted, being born and growing up in the Dominican with nothing, and then all of a sudden being blessed," he says.

Might such intensity scare off some reporters?

"That's good, then," Pujols says, and somewhere Kent is smiling.

"I haven't read a paper in two years," Pujols says.

"That's why we're going out of business," I reply.

"I'm glad you guys are going out of business," he says. "Now you see me down the hall eating a sandwich, you'll have to Twitter to tell everyone."

I don't Twitter.

"I'm telling you, you're going to have to learn," he says, and now he's giving me the Page 2 treatment.

He's nothing like what I was told to expect. Is this an act? Will I find someone else over the test of time?

I continue to poke. I mention a demeaning story I found on the Internet. He's portrayed as an uncaring superstar, so distant that on autograph day in St. Louis a reporter writes he won't make eye contact with fans.

Pujols nods. "Our media guy told me about it. I guess he didn't notice me stand up when a lady with a child needed help with her baby stroller up the stairs.

"And she was even a Cubs fan," he adds with a chuckle.

The writer does not talk to Pujols, and I know how abrasive, standoffish and distrustful I am of hit-and-run reporters.

The writer does not know that Pujols has been advised to move more than 600 fans along so everyone will get an autograph.

"I have a problem with people who make judgments without knowing me," Pujols admits. "Rip me to my face, and I'll love you for it."

He obviously doesn't know who he is talking to at this point.

"I don't care what anyone has to say because I have the peace from God that you don't have probably," Pujols says, and now who is making judgments?

"I can play this game 10 more years, five more years. …"

I interrupt. "Better say 10 years or Arte Moreno will throw a fit."

"Let's say 10 years," Pujols says quickly with a hearty laugh, and I'm having such a good time I forget what he's talking about.

The folks in St. Louis haven't forgotten. They've been slow to get past King Albert's departure. But what do we care?

"I'm no king," Pujols says, but he sure is paid like one. "I'm just human like you."

By this time in a first meeting with an athlete, I'm usually called a lot worse. I like the guy, especially after hearing another story about him that never makes the papers.

The way it's told to me, he meets an autistic child. He's asked to hit a home run for him, does so and then has someone retrieve the ball so he can give it to the kid.

"I told him I'd do my best to hit one," Pujols says. "But he kept asking and asking, so I said I would."

I tell Pujols it's a darn good thing the kid wasn't here and asking during the first 27 games of the season.

And his laugh rocks the clubhouse.

No one warned me about this Pujols.

IT HAS BECOME obvious Manager Mike Scioscia has control issues, players privately calling him the "fun cop," because he's going to send away anyone who has any.

He's no longer the manager who can do no wrong; hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was fired without Scioscia's approval.

But the surprise here is Moreno. Portrayed for a decade as a good-guy owner, he's flipped-out angry. He has already let a growing list of reporters know with disgust that he won't speak to them again because of their criticism.

He can't understand; after all, he did lower beer prices 10 years ago.

This week I jokingly asked whether he was still not talking, and he went into a toddler-like tantrum while using grown-up obscenities in front of several employees.

I suggested he show a little more maturity, but as quickly as he moved to shut the door behind him, I can't say for sure he heard.

But obviously he knows how to read.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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