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Pujols putting distractions aside, excited to be in Angels camp

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Albert Pujols is excited just to be outside, as he's been training indoors in St. Louis. (AP)  
Albert Pujols is excited just to be outside, as he's been training indoors in St. Louis. (AP)  

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols, unleashed?

On a warm day in the desert, thousands of miles from where Pujols has ever suited up before for spring training, maybe that's a little dramatic.

Pujols, uncaged -- that was more like it on Day One in his new life with the Angels.

"I'm really excited to be here," Pujols said. "It feels good to be outside. I've been training for almost three months inside, in the cage back in St. Louis. It's awesome to be back here and start spring baseball."

Uncaged and outside, Pujols spent the day beaming. He smiled frequently throughout an unofficial workout on a back field on the minor-league side of the Angels' complex. His 53-minute news conference afterward was beamed nationwide, live, on the MLB Network.

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Never before have so many electromagnetic waves emanated from this franchise. The Angels took the Pujols press conference to an auditorium in a resort hotel just behind Tempe Diablo Stadium, by Mt. Diablo. (Easy on the wisecracks here, Cardinals fans.) A club spokesman confirmed the team has never done that for any player.

Then again, this club has never before committed a quarter of a billion dollars to any one player.

At that price, had anybody greeted Pujols with that old line, "You look like a million bucks," it would have been an insult.

He arrived in Arizona on Sunday and reported to camp a week early, as promised, just after 7 a.m. on Monday. He was greeted by pitchers, catchers and expectations. Few position players are in yet, since the Angels' first full-squad workout isn't until next Monday.

Those who are here were in on the ground floor of the biggest seismic shock to hit the game since it last was on the field, when Pujols' Cardinals won Game 7 of the World Series last October.

"I had a great time in the city of St. Louis," Pujols said. "You don't just flip that page and say move on. I had some great moments, was able to accomplish winning two World Series, and that's something that I want to bring to Anaheim and to this ball club -- have, hopefully, better years than I had in St. Louis and, hopefully, more championships."

In his first steps toward the 2012 season, Pujols worked Monday on Field 3. Some 150 fans crowded around the fence to get a glimpse of the game's biggest story. Pujols spent time taking ground balls at first base, then took several rounds of batting practice against hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. He didn't blast a ball over the fence until Round No. 5.

Kendrys Morales, who lost all of last season to complications from a broken ankle after finishing fifth in AL MVP voting in 2009 -- and who lost his hold on first base when Pujols signed -- took turns in the batting cage with the big guy.

Third-base coach Dino Ebel had some fun here.

"I told Morales, 'I don't want to be your friend anymore. Albert's my new friend,' " Ebel hollered in Hatcher's direction.

Everybody wants to be Albert's friend. When they called it quits for the day, Angels owner Arte Moreno was waiting to greet Pujols as he left the field.

He is the face of the franchise, and expectations are enormous.

But he played that role for so long in St. Louis, it isn't like he needs a new mask.

"First of all, I need to make sure I prepare to do my job," he said. "That's something I'm not going to change."

Then there are the requisite questions facing Pujols, like how switching leagues may affect his numbers. He pointed to his rookie season in 2001, when he batted .329 with 37 homers and 130 RBI in 161 games.

"It's a different league, but I can go back to 2001 and I didn't know any pitcher around the league," he said. "With the technology right now and the scouting, you can ask guys questions and go by the scouting report. And in the NL I got to play interleague, so I'll probably see guys I saw in the past."

As new Angels pitcher LaTroy Hawkins quipped the other day, it's not like they're suddenly asking Pujols to play football.

Yet as Angels manager Mike Scioscia acknowledges, there is more anticipation in the desert air here than there's been in a while.

Say this as the Angels look for liftoff: If Pujols is at all disappointing out of the gate, even in the slightest, it probably will have more to do with his age (32) than being burdened by crushing pressure.

As then-Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said on another of Pujols' monumental arrival days in spring -- last year, when his contract negotiations were blowing up -- the man "is tied for first with the all-timers" when it comes to blocking out distractions.

"As soon as I had the press conference last year in spring training, I put it to the side and it was time to play baseball," Pujols said. "After I do this today, it's time to get ready for the 2012 season. That's something that I've done for 12 years and I'm going to continue and do that. I try to clear my mind and know what I need to do. I know how many swings I need to take, how many at-bats I need to get to get myself ready for April. That's something I don't take for granted."

Though he was hitting only .267 at the end of May last season, and homered just twice during the month while enduring the longest long-ball drought of his career -- through 105 at-bats between last April 23 and May 23 -- he bounced back to hit .319 with 19 homers and 49 RBI in 69 post-All-Star break games.

"I don't want to blame any of that on the contract last year for the struggles I had in April and May," he said. "I bounced back after the break, right where I want to be.

"Stuff like that, you have to go through in the season to make you better. If everything looks beautiful and you have a great career without struggling, you wouldn't be able to enjoy this game. You have to struggle in this game. Let's face it. You're facing guys who are hard to hit, you have to make the adjustments. You have to appreciate guys who you're facing every day ... it's not like high school ball. These guys are here for a reason. They're pretty good too."

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