By Joe Lemire
March 21, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Upon entering the main gate at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels' spring training ballpark, there's a merchandise stand immediately to the right. The only player apparel sold there bears Albert Pujols' name.

Alongside some team gear are pennants with Pujols' face, red Pujols "shirseys" (jersey-style t-shirts with his name and number), and the pricier white Pujols game jerseys, though they can be seen as a long-term investment, just as the club made in the player.

Pujols' new uniform is less incongruous than it could be, as red is the Angels' base color just as it was with the Cardinals, even if the hue is a little off.

Similarly, the tint of his role with the Angels is different, too. He is no longer the singular face of the franchise as he was in St. Louis, a club that had several stars though was clearly Pujols' team. With the Angels, he is the best player on a star-studded team, though being the centerpiece is a less explicit role.

Pujols' face is most prominent now because fans already bought their Jered Weaver, Torii Hunter, and Dan Haren gear years ago.

And because, well, he's Pujols, whom general manager Jerry Dipoto called "an iconic offensive player in this generation."

But Dipoto said they haven't had any face-of-the-franchise conversations with their future Hall of Famer, and the GM described the player's role thusly: "Albert is part of a team that we believe has a chance to be very good."

The Angels signed Pujols, the future Hall of Famer and heretofore lifelong Cardinal, to a 10-year, $240 million contract back in December. Los Angeles also agreed to pay starter C.J. Wilson $77 million for the next five years, the largest salary to any pitcher this offseason, making him a somewhat overlooked major addition. Their inclusion on a club that won 86 games last year makes the Angels serious title contenders, even with the two-time AL champion Rangers in the same division.

"Obviously everybody's excited about the moves this organization has made, but I don't get caught up in that," Pujols said. "My job is to come here and get ready to play every day and do whatever it takes to help this organization to win."

Of the expectations facing his new star, manager Mike Scioscia said, "He's going to be Albert Pujols."

Yet a minute later, Scioscia continued, "He doesn't have to be Superman, but he has to play at a level that's going to help us win."

So often in his career, being Albert Pujols has meant being Superman.

* * *

The metronomic sound of a bouncing ball emanating from the walkway outside the Angels' clubhouse has the familiar rhythm of a basketball dribble.

Peek around the corner, however, and one discovers that this is no idle exercise. Pujols is clutching a medicine ball near his left shoulder as if he were a basketball player in the low post. He then rotates his torso right and throws the weighted sphere against a concrete wall.

Bounce. The first is off the wall. The second -- bounce -- reverberates off the pavement below his feet before the ball returns to his hands. He repeats. Bounce.Bounce. He does it with enough rapidity to simulate a slow on-court dribble.

"It's evident how good he is and how much talent he has, but I think the one thing I've gotten to see up close is how hard he works to cultivate that talent," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said. "He puts in a lot of time and effort to hone [his] skills.

"He doesn't just roll out of bed -- I still think he'd be a really good player if he did that, but what makes him as good as he is his work ethic."

Pujols' exploits -- brilliantly profiled by Tom Verducci in this week's issue of SI -- are otherworldly. Only once in his 11 seasons has he finished worse than fifth in the NL MVP voting; that year, 2007, he still finished ninth.

In one season or another he has led the league in almost every meaningful category, sans triples: runs (five times), OPS and slugging (three), home runs (twice), on-base percentage, hits, RBIs, average and doubles (once).

While helping St. Louis win its second World Series in his career, Pujols started slowly but rallied so furiously that he finished the season one batting average point and one RBI shy of his 11th consecutive .300/30 HR/100 RBI season.

In the first five weeks of spring training, the top lesson the Angels have learned about Pujols is how his intense focus and consistency made him as good as he is.

"There's an ethic, a drive and a competitive nature with every major league ballplayer," Dipoto said. "Albert takes it a step beyond."

Said Scioscia, "We're seeing firsthand what you expect. I don't think a player can reach that pinnacle without working hard. He has the passion and the drive. There's an intensity in batting practice. There's an intensity on defense and in drills. There's an intensity from the dugout to the on-deck circle to the batter's box."

That approach and training routine have remained constant throughout his career.

"Why change what already fits?" Pujols said. "I don't have to change that routine. That's something I'm proud of, the adjustments and the things that I have to do. Obviously this is a different league, but the game doesn't change."

That means strict adherence to a plan, even at the expense of spring training norms. Rare is the veteran, much less superstar, who plays three straight road games, but that's what Pujols did earlier this week. So far this spring he's batting .367 (11-for-30) with three home runs.

On the day after Pujols hit his third homer, Scioscia used his daily media briefing to instead praise his great secondary lead that helped him score from second on a Hunter single. Pujols' defense -- for which he's won two Gold Gloves, even if his glove has been overshadowed by his bat -- has drawn raves in camp this spring.

His preparation isn't the only thing that's unchanged.

Haren was Pujols' Cardinals teammate for his first two big-league seasons in 2002 and '03; they've been reunited nearly a decade later.

"Same guy," Haren said. "He's really intense, especially on the field. But in the clubhouse he's personable."

For the first time in more than a decade, however, Pujols is a clubhouse's new guy -- at least in name, if not in practice.

"It's a new team, but I've said it before, I know most of these guys," he said. "I played against them and played with some of them. It's a really easy transition."

The Angels weren't exactly waiting for Superman -- they have, of course, won five division titles in the last decade and the 2002 World Series as a wild-card entrant -- but there's no doubt what a boost Pujols provides.

"There's no doubt he has a presence, but he fits right in with these guys," Scioscia said. "He has a passion for the game that makes him practice hard. When he's out on the field, he's one of the guys working hard.

"One of the better guys, I'll admit, but he's working hard."

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