JUPITER, Fla. -- The big black truck pulled into the parking lot at 7:37 a.m. The St. Louis Cardinals icon emerged for the start of what could be his last season in St. Louis. Let's just say this:
The color of that monster truck sure didn't match Albert Pujols' mood.
"I'm not disappointed, man," Pujols said a little while later, one day after his self-imposed deadline for a new contract passed, setting him up for free agency this winter. "This negotiation happens, two sides didn't get together. That's the way it goes. You can't get disappointed.
|Albert Pujols gets right to work during his first day of spring training. (Getty Images)|
On his first day of what could have been a contentious and gloomy start to the perennial MVP candidate's most uncertain season, Pujols gave a virtuoso performance.
He smiled. He hit. He joked. He consistently returned to one of his key themes, saying, "I want to be a Cardinal forever. That's my goal."
There is no telling how it will play out, but you would never know that this Pujols thing could be a distraction, based on the smile plastered across Tony La Russa's face Thursday morning.
How much does Pujols excel at blocking out distractions?
"He's tied for first with the all-timers," the Cardinals manager said.
Eventually, there surely will be some prickly moments. Seasons are emotional. Pujols and the Cardinals are at the most fragile state ever in their storied relationship. Things are bound to happen.
La Russa's assertion is obvious. Pujols is an all-timer to begin with, so by definition, he's pretty darn good at blocking out distractions -- real or imagined. He's also practiced at the art of telling reporters to take a hike when he doesn't want to talk. There's little danger Pujols will lose focus worrying about his future, just as there is a pretty good chance people will lose interest in asking Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright what they think of Pujols' situation.
"What situation?" Wainwright asked.
"We don't make anything of it," Wainwright said. "There's nothing that's going to be distracting to baseball players, plain and simple. We've got too much else to worry about."
Pujols is 31, he has three MVP awards and 408 career homers. He has already earned more than $89 million playing this game, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
When last season ended, maybe he assumed there would have been a new contract by now and he wouldn't be starting 2011 with such uncertainty, facing a battery of some of his good media friends right out of the gate. Yes, that would have been nice.
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"Did I wish something got done and we'd be talking about something different today?" Pujols said. "Yes, I wish. But that isn't the case and that isn't going to change any relationship that I have with this organization or with the owner [Bill DeWitt Jr.] or Mo [general manager John Mozeliak]. That's how business goes."
He hit all the right notes Thursday as he answered questions for 24 minutes. He was genial. He was gracious. He was respectful to the Cardinals and, especially, to his teammates.
"Please guys, I hope you leave them alone," he said. "It's OK to come and throw a question to me and me rejecting it. But don't go to my teammates and try and put them on the spot. I would really appreciate it if you don't ask them questions about what's going on and what's going to happen with me next year.
"It's not what's going to happen with me next year, it's what's going to happen with the Cardinals this year. That's our main goal, our main focus."
Maybe, he said, he and the Cardinals will get something done after the season. He reiterated that he will not agree to reopen negotiations during the season because he doesn't want to think about anything but baseball (though if he's so good at blocking out distractions, it's hard to see why it would be an imposition if talks between him and the club resumed and actually got serious).
He also said the union has not been pressuring him to seek a record-setting contract, interesting in that it directly contradicted La Russa's rant from earlier this week.
Ultimately, between Tim Lincecum fastballs and Cliff Lee curves, in his quiet moments, what Pujols essentially is going to have to do is decide how much being a one-town man means to him.
"It's a great place to have on your résumé, to be a Cardinal for life," Pujols said. "Not too many players stay with one organization.
"Believe me, it's a good piece to have in your life. Hopefully that happens."
Until then, when his final decision is delivered sometime next winter, he'll do his best to keep swinging and keep the "distractions" to a minimum.
"I don't plan what's going to happen this month, two months from now," he said. "One day at a time. ...
"I don't even know if I'm going to be alive tomorrow or six months from now. And that's the reality. Our life is like numbers. You don't know what can happen."
Yeah, and in Pujols' case, very big numbers.