And I’m not talking about an epic spill, like the one I took the first time I saw Pujols play—a blurry time of my 21-year-old enjoyment, where I smacked into a glass door at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, losing my (now cheap) $8 beer and my footing.
I blamed it on the glass being too clean, but I digress.
The fall that I am referring to, and what Pujols endured—and he did endure it—was a month-long plunge of the worst kind: the rapid descent of his batting average (it has ended the careers of lesser men).
The surprising proverbial drop—and failure to rise—into the abyss of possible extra pine tar and secret viewings of Tom Emanski videos began in April of 2012 and didn’t stop until mid-May, hitting rock-bottom at a .194 average—six points below the “Mendoza Line.”
And a whopping zero home runs as well.
What in the world was wrong with him? As we would later witness, nothing really—he managed to get back to the Pujols most expect from year to year, finishing the season at .285, with 30 home runs and 105 RBI.
However, that month—which seemed longer—was the first impression many don’t get a second chance to amend. Even though it was a short, microscopic piece of time, in such a productive career, there was enough statistical substance to open up a small window of doubt towards the extra-talented first baseman’s ability.
Albert Pujols had, surprisingly, fallen—below the 1,000 percent fans are accustomed to.
Now, as the 2013 campaign begins, Pujols seems defiant and motivated to prove he is still one of the best in the game. It’s a determination he expressed to reporters down at spring training camp (via MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez):
I'm still hungry. I still need to be here early, do my work, do my preparation. That's something that is never going to change. When you see it changing, that's probably because I stopped falling in love with the game; that the love is fading away. I don't think that's going to happen, because before that happens, I prefer hanging up the jersey.
No person around the game probably has ever questioned Pujols’ work ethic. He works hard (for his money). He works longer. He apparently still has the drive to be the best.
However, in the always interesting unknown of the MLB, practice, practice and more practice is often misdiagnosed.
It doesn’t make you perfect; it makes you prepared.
So, then, is Albert Pujols prepared to get back to the top tier of the game in 2013?
I would say absolutely—and it has nothing to do with stats, scheduling, ballparks, AL West power rankings or misguided predictions.
It’s all about “The Trio.”
Without question, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout and Pujols will be key factors toward the Angels’ success in the 2013 season (and beyond). However, it will actually benefit Pujols individually, too.
Other than the obvious improved protection surrounding him in the lineup, there is also an underlying point that will keep his April from nose-diving...again. Just think of Hamilton and Trout as the shell protecting Albert from his one form of Kryptonite: fame.
It’s an aspect Pujols has always struggled with in his career. He didn’t handle fame well early on, when there were comparisons and talk of him replacing Mark McGwire; he didn’t handle it well during the Home Run Derby in St. Louis, where he succumbed to the pressure of winning it in his own ballpark; and he didn’t start off too solid with the media hype surrounding his free agency, $240 million contract and final destination out here in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, Pujols is just not built for the constant spotlight. And he accepts that (per Gonzalez):
Last year, even during the season, it seems like everybody wanted a piece, you know what I mean? That's tough. This year, it's a little more relaxed. Less interviews, less photo shoots and things like that.
The relaxation that he refers to will be provided by the other two-thirds. While Hamilton and Trout are hounded by the media—for one thing or another—Pujols can go about his work without being scheduled like he’s pitching a film for Oscar consideration; he can focus on finding his swing to right field again.
Now, that’s not to say he will be completely protected. Regardless if he likes it or not, there will be media watching his every move.
But he is no longer the main attraction—for sports writers, that is. He is part of a dynamic group, which will allow him to blend in with the general questioning tossed out from the masses of scribblers (for now).
It will alleviate the singular pressure of fame he dealt with last season. And, if all of it goes accordingly, he will then be able to rehab the knee back to full strength, focus on plate discipline and acclimate (quietly) to becoming a leader in the clubhouse.
Which will ultimately make him the best overall player in MLB in 2013.
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