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Angels' tense times nearly included Pujols, Hunter fight in 2012

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

Joe Flacco (USATSI)
It's been a long two seasons with the Angels for Albert Pujols. (USATSI)

The two-year downhill toboggan run of owner Arte Moreno's broken franchise has created a suffocatingly tense atmosphere throughout the organization best illustrated by a team meeting last August, in which All-Star Torii Hunter had to be physically restrained from punching out $240 million man Albert Pujols.

The meeting, details of which were provided to CBSSports.com by several sources, followed two ugly losses to Tampa Bay last Aug. 17 and 18 that were rife with internal team discord and short tempers.

During a 12-3 blowout on Friday night in which Jered Weaver was hammered for nine earned runs in three innings, some players were unhappy when the emotional ace threw up his arms in disgust when one of the infielders dove for a ground ball and failed to make the play.

During a 10-8 implosion the next night in which starter C.J. Wilson was cuffed for seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, some players grew weary of Wilson's chirping in the dugout – especially when he began giving advice to hitters. Hunter sharply told him to pipe down and the two had words in the dugout.

Immediately following that game, veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins called for a players' only meeting. Word of the Hunter-Wilson altercation had reached the Angels' bullpen by the late innings, and Hawkins, a respected veteran then in his 18th season in the majors and now with the Mets, could identify major problems when he saw them.

In a glimpse into how fractured the Angels had become, they could not even agree on a meeting format. Hawkins called for a players-only meeting. Pujols, insisting that manager Mike Scioscia and the coaches attend, wound up co-opting the meeting.

Pujols called out Weaver for showing up a teammate the night before. Then he turned his attention on Hunter, blaming him for the dugout altercation with Wilson.

What Pujols did not know at the time was that Wilson and Hunter already had made amends, with the pitcher apologizing to the outfielder for overstepping his bounds in the dugout immediately following the game.

“Albert, you'd better get your facts straight,” a seething Hunter told Pujols.

Pujols said something back, and Hunter jumped him for being a bad teammate and pouting all season whenever he failed to get hits in a game, even in games the Angels won … and now he was going to call others out?

“Shut up, Torii,” Pujols snapped.

It was then that Hunter, from across the clubhouse, lost it and charged Pujols. Hawkins and outfielder Vernon Wells had to restrain him.

The meeting proceeded from there, and when it was over, tempers still heated, Hunter had to be physically held back a second time from going after Pujols, who is described as wanting no part of the fight.

The incident was reminiscent of one in Minnesota earlier in Hunter's career, when an exasperated Hunter, in a heated discussion trying to teach Justin Morneau to be a better teammate, punched Morneau in the jaw. The two later bonded after that incident, and Morneau went on to win an AL MVP award and he became a long-tenured and beloved Twin.

Hunter quickly became the spiritual leader of the Angels upon signing as a free agent before the 2008 season and remained so during his five years with the team. Among his peers, Hunter is known as one of the most popular players and best teammates in the league. But he will not hesitate to call out a teammate he thinks isn't living up to standards.

That Pujols, the new, $240 million centerpiece of the Angels, would become a flashpoint just months into his monster 10-year deal is the most expensive example of the organization-wide dysfunction that Moreno has both created and fueled with his temperamental and impulsive decisions.

Since his first full year as owner of the Angels in 2004, Moreno has fired close to 40 members of the front office, baseball operations department and scouting and medical staffs. The Angels maintain a skeletal front-office staff in many areas, and one of the leanest game-day staffs in all of baseball. If someone is let go, there often is no replacement hired. Moreno is said to gouge hours from his low-paid employees.

As for the club being on-deck to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, many in the organization thought the team needed more pitching help rather than Pujols during the winter of 2011-2012 when Moreno decided on the Cardinals free agent. After all, the Angels at that point already had a slugging first baseman in Kendrys Morales.

Last winter, many key members of the baseball operations department wanted to make more of an effort to re-sign Zack Greinke, but it was Moreno who steered them to free agent Josh Hamilton.

Though he has spent millions on players, including a record $153 million on this year's payroll, many people both inside and outside of the Angels organization agree that Moreno's reign of terror has created obstacles not only impossible for the club to overcome, but ones that have shifted the Angels into reverse.

When the decision was made to pursue Vernon Wells from Toronto before the 2011 season, a move Scioscia is said to have endorsed, it was Moreno, one source says, who threatened then-GM Tony Reagins with a firing if Reagins didn't consummate the deal within 24 hours. Moreno is described as being chapped at having lost free agent Adrian Beltre to the Rangers roughly two weeks earlier, and that helps explain why, in an agreement that utterly stunned almost everybody in the game, the Angels agreed to pay all but $5 million of the $86 million to a player that Toronto was so eager to offload that the Jays surely could have been persuaded to pay millions more.

“Arte needs to stay out of the baseball business,” one baseball person says. “Arte thinks he knows the game. He doesn't know the game. He only knows the money, the business side.”

Moreno grandiosely awarded Scioscia an unheard-of 10-year deal before the 2009 season. Now the longest-tenured manager in the game, Scioscia led the club to the 2002 World Series title – before Moreno became owner, though Moreno accompanied the club on its celebratory White House visit in May, 2003, shortly after he purchased the club – but the length of that contract has hamstrung the organization in other ways.

Chiefly, it centered the organization's power structure in the manager's office (and the owner's chair). Now, after Moreno fired Reagins and hired Jerry Dipoto as GM before the 2011 season, the most dysfunctional manager-GM relationship in the game rages onward. The situation probably became irreparable the moment Dipoto blindsided Scioscia by firing hitting coach Mickey Hatcher without the manager's knowledge last May.

It has become a miserable situation, several sources say, and as colleague Jon Heyman notes, something has to give.

Meanwhile, others within the organization worry over where the money can possibly come from to keep young superstar Mike Trout a lifelong Angel. With millions upon millions already committed to Pujols, Hamilton, Wilson and Weaver, many wonder how the club will possibly be able to produce the Brinks-truck full of cash it will take to keep Trout.

And all the while, with Pujols out for the season and Hamilton slogging through a lost season, the losses mount.

And so does the tension.

“It's been tough,” Weaver says. “Anytime you're used to winning the American League West the past few years, it's tough.

“I've never been in a position where we're this many games out of it with this many left. It's tough. We're all about winning.”

Scratch that. The Angels were all about winning.

At 55-71 and 18 ½ games behind the first-place Rangers when the weekend started, they are headed for the worst season of Scioscia's 14-year run as manager.

Under Moreno, this is an organization that no longer even knows who it is, even when looking in the mirror at those awful, collegiate Angels polo shirts that the owner requires all front-office employees to wear daily.

“I think that's tough for me to get into,” Weaver says. “I'm not very good at that front office stuff. I just show up and pitch.

“I do think there's been a shift in the way we've gone about things. We were very minor-league oriented when I came in. There was a lot of talent coming through, not only at the Triple-A level but on down from Double-A, Single-A.

“We went through a period where we made some trades and kind of traded away the talent we did have.”

Following that team meeting last August, the Angels finished the season on a 27-14 roll that nearly carried them into the playoffs in spite of everything. From the raw emotions came highly constructive results, one source calling it one of the best team meetings he's ever been a part of.

Among those constructive changes, sources say, was that Pujols, who had trouble accepting early last year that some of the Angels' veterans didn't need his guidance, was a terrific teammate the rest of the season.

But he and the Angels could not sustain that momentum in 2013, not with Pujols' season-long physical ailments, Hamilton's funk and embarrassingly subpar pitching.

Not with the owner being overly involved in the baseball decisions.

Pujols could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Hunter?

“I never talk about what goes on in meetings,” the Tigers right fielder said. “Albert and I are friends. We've talked several times throughout this season. I have no comment about that.”

 
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