Albert Pujols' 20th season in the majors is about to begin with the Los Angeles Angels. When it does, the 40-year-old slugger is likely to be the oldest player in the big leagues.
Although time has chipped away at Pujols' mountainous talent, he has never believed his advancing age will prevent him from putting up more big numbers on the diamond. His recent years of diminishing overall production have been counterbalanced by still-steady power numbers, and they have done nothing to hurt his confidence — particularly as he heads into this short season with big plans.
After struggling through injuries that slowed him earlier in his 10-year contract with the Angels, the three-time MVP is feeling better than he has in years as he heads into the ninth season of that mammoth $240 million deal. He fervently hopes this will be the year when the Angels finally get their first playoff victories of his tenure.
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“When you don’t have that hunger and that joy and that passion coming to the ballpark and hanging out with your teammates, that’s when you walk away,” Pujols said Saturday. "The game will let you know. But I still feel like I was in 2001 with the Cardinals, when I came to camp to make that ballclub. I still have that hunger and that desire.”
Pujols is still a key component of the Angels' lineup even though his West Coast numbers have never reached his St. Louis prime. He is eager to build on last season, when his 23 homers gave him 656 for his career, putting him just behind Willie Mays (660) for fifth place in baseball history.
Pujols believes he can do it because he's healthy. He is nearly two years removed from three surgeries that were necessary after the 2018 campaign.
"Being healthy brought me more joy for the game,” he said. “Talk to any athlete, and you start going through injuries and tough parts of your career, and you start doubting yourself. When you stay healthy like I have, it’s like, ‘Wow, this how it felt when I was 25 and in my 30s.’”
Pujols is likely to be the Angels' regular first baseman, according to new manager Joe Maddon, who understands both Pujols' limitations and exceptional qualities.
“He is definitely a Level 5, ‘All I want to do is win’ guy,” Maddon said. “He has been there, done that before. I’m watching him hustle on and off the field, running to first base, (and) to say he gets it is ridiculous. He’s gotten it for so many years.”
Pujols believes he can stay healthy while pushing himself to the limit in a shortened season, realizing the importance of every at-bat in this truncated time frame. Although he has never been a particularly fast starter, with his career batting average in April ranking as the worst of any month in his career (.280), he doesn't feel like he's starting cold this season at the height of summer.
“Right out of the gate, you need to be ready to go,” he said. “You don't have a lot of games to wake up. It's a short season. ... I think you need to take every day, every game like it's the last game of your life, pretty much.”
Pujols received widespread praise earlier in the pandemic when he agreed to pay the salaries of the Angels' staffers in the Dominican Republic for five months. The Angels have been particularly aggressive among major league clubs in cutting expenses during the pandemic by furloughing or dropping employees.
Pujols said he didn't write the check to earn praise, or because it was for his fellow Dominicans.
“I felt in my heart that I was capable to help those people,” Pujols said. “It's something that I felt was needed.”