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Pujols fond of St. Louis, but has turned the page

Pujols fond of St. Louis, but has turned the page

Pujols fond of St. Louis, but has turned the page

ANAHEIM -- Albert Pujols will share some laughs with old friends, Angel Stadium will fill and baseball fans all over the country will be intrigued by a generation's greatest player facing the franchise he almost singlehandedly elevated.

But there's an unavoidable storyline here, which makes this marquee reunion a little, well, awkward: Since Pujols left St. Louis, he and his new team have struggled while his old team has thrived.

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Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto believes that narrative lacks perspective, particularly the part about Pujols not yet living up to the expectations of his contract.

"Frankly, you might be hard-pressed to find 10 players in history that can match up with the numbers Albert posted in St. Louis," said Dipoto, who 18 1/2 months ago signed Pujols to the 10-year, $240 million contract that still draws heavy scrutiny. "Nobody was holding him to an OPS number or a walk rate [with the Angels]. You're signing a player for the next 10 years of his career. Inasmuch as many would like to be critical of what Albert has done with the Angels -- and I've heard all the hubbub -- he's been a heck of a player."

When the Cardinals arrive in Anaheim for a three-game series on Tuesday, they'll notice the same old Albert. The stance is still violent, the handshake is still firm and the glare is still frightening.

But Pujols' numbers -- a .250 batting average and a .752 OPS that's tied for 86th in the Majors -- are unrecognizable, mainly because the plantar fasciitis on his left foot and the occasional swelling of his right knee have limited his mobility and sapped his power.

Dipoto sees it differently.

"Most players would have expensed significant disabled-list time, and he just keeps going out there and plowing through," the second-year GM said of Pujols, who has instead started 49 of his 80 games at designated hitter.

"He finds a way, regardless of what's ailing him at that moment in time."

Pujols doesn't like to talk about his ailments, leaving him exposed to the criticism that comes with analyzing his numbers in a vacuum. Broach St. Louis, and the 33-year-old puts his guard up.

"Let's talk about our team," Pujols said Sunday. "Two years passed already, so we don't need to talk about that. … Write about how we're playing and the series coming up, not about how I feel about St. Louis. That's not what it's all about."

Oh, but for the next few days, it will be. Because for the first time -- scrimmages excluded -- Pujols will face off against the franchise he'll be forever linked to, after winning three National League MVP awards, mashing 445 home runs and compiling a .328/.420/.617 slash line.

Pujols wants to move on, but it's hard to remove yourself from that kind of success.

"I still follow them real close," Pujols said of the Cardinals. "I'm pretty good friends with almost half the guys. Those are guys we had great success with. It was a hell of a run. Now, it's time to turn the page and bring the success I had there over here."

Pujols is working on that. Last year, the Angels fell short of the playoffs despite winning 89 games. Through 82 games this year -- fresh off signing Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal -- they're four games below .500, nine out of first and 7 1/2 out of the second American League Wild Card spot despite winning six straight games.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, haven't missed a beat since Pujols left. They have the fourth-best winning percentage in the National League since the start of 2012, were one win away from the World Series last fall and sit 17 games above .500 as the NL Wild Card leaders.

Pujols may deserve some credit for that.

"I think he made an impact on a lot of players," said Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny, who took over for Tony La Russa a month before Pujols switched teams.

"It's a compliment to Albert that he was part of setting that trend and keeping that tradition going. I think he influenced many guys that don't even realize they were influenced by him."

Perhaps none more than Yadier Molina, who this season has coupled an NL-leading .345 batting average with his trademark defense behind the plate.

"He's family to me," said Molina, who will spend Monday's off-day at Pujols' house, enjoying some of his wife's cooking. "A lot of people don't know Pujols. He has a great heart and he's a great human being. He tries to help everyone. For me, I'm happy to have him in my life because he helped me a lot."

Pujols' Cardinals career ended with a second World Series title, but the two sides didn't necessarily part ways amicably. Pujols felt disrespected by the way negotiations played out over the ensuing offseason, and though he won't talk about it publicly, some noticeable bitterness remains.

Still, his foundation's headquarters reside in St. Louis. His house sits close by. And his appreciation for the Cardinals is ever-present.

"They pretty much raised me and took me to who I am today," Pujols said. "I'm blessed and thankful for all the fans and the Cardinals organization, from the guy that handled the clubhouse to the guys that cleans our shoes to our trainers. All those guys; those are memories that you can take with you.

"They obviously for 11 years were great to me and I stay in touch with them, but it was time to move on."

Asked what Pujols' legacy will be with the baseball-crazed fans of St. Louis, Dipoto said: "He will always be beloved, he will always be respected for what he did on the field, and sometimes it just takes a little time to pass."

Time, Dipoto said, "gives you great respect for what that player did -- and that player did a lot."

Time will also see Pujols' salary increase, all the way up to $30 million during his age-41 season in 2021.

And it's the Angels, not the Cardinals, picking up the tab.

"You're always looking at 2014, '15, but I'm not going to sit here and try to dream of what a single player will look like at that given moment in time," Dipoto said. "That's really not very productive. What I know is who the person is, who the competitor is, and what his contributions are. And I believe he will always find a way. That's what he does."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. Jen Langosch and Chris Abshire contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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