Two days before Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright recently made a start, he sent a tongue-in-cheek text message to a friend two time zones removed.
Wainwright, less than 14 months removed from elbow ligament replacement surgery, had been clubbed at home by the Chicago Cubs in a previous appearance and looked strangely vulnerable while surrendering two home runs, including a game-breaking grand slam.
“I’m ready (to get rolling) if you are,” Wainwright joked to his friend, Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols.
Now into the second month of the most challenging start within a 12-year career, Pujols remains a source of acute interest — and, yes, some concern — to many of those he left when opting for the Angels’ 10-year, $240 million offer last December. Wainwright saw Pujols win two his three National League MVP Awards. Now he sees Pujols flirting with the Mendoza Line and, like some others within the Cardinals clubhouse, wants to help any way possible.
“As players, we all know he’s going to turn around,” Wainwright said. “Nobody denies what kind of player he is. And because of that, he’s got all eyes on him all the time.”
Pujols has maintained a network of close friends in St. Louis. He stays in close contact with, among others, catcher Yadier Molina and third base coach Jose Oquendo. Even though he is not a golfer, left fielder Matt Holliday recently agreed to take his place as host celebrity for this summer’s Pujols Family Foundation golf event.
“It’s tough for him like it is for any of us when we’re struggling,” Molina said. “He’s a great player. Everybody knows that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating for him. He just needs to stay positive. One swing can change everything.”
The Angels have been waiting for that swing since opening day. Through Friday Pujols was mired in the longest home run drought of his career, 33 games and 137 at-bats. A .194 batting average this season contrasted his career .326 figure. He had endured a stretch of 18 games with only one RBI, 14 games with one extra-base hit and 11 with one walk — unfathomable numbers to a talent freely recognized as his generation’s best player.
Pujols remains in regular contact with his former manager, Tony La Russa, who retired from the organization little more than a month before Pujols signed with the Angels. Pujols confided in La Russa before, during and after contemplating a decision that several times brought him to tears. La Russa describes he and Pujols as “close and friends forever.”
“He’s not accepting this or tolerating this any more than at any other time when he’s not himself,” La Russa said. “But (the contract) is a distraction. If you care at all — and he cares — it’s a distraction.”
During a speaking engagement last week La Russa told a crowd that Pujols is bothered deeply by the time spent away from family, which is in St. Louis until school is out for the summer.
“I don’t think he wants sympathy,” La Russa said. “I just have an understanding of what he’s going through.”
The routine he had constructed in St. Louis is different, or at least still evolving. La Russa readily acknowledges that playing for a contract is far less taxing than trying to justify one after the fact.
“Without a doubt the year after is much more distracting,” said La Russa, who returns to St. Louis this week for the retirement of his No. 10 before Friday’s game against Atlanta. “The year before is survival. You have no guarantees. Then, all of a sudden it’s you against everyone else. Now you have responsibilities to everybody: an owner, new teammates, fans. It’s like a 180. One is much more normal. Survival is an instinct. Forcing something is different.”
Part of Pujols’ mantra is that he has moved on from St. Louis, that nothing has really changed. However, friends of Pujols inside and outside his former organization describe a proud man wounded by what he considers an incomplete depiction of failed talks with the Cardinals, who never approached the same contract structure after he rejected a nine-year, $198 million bid in January 2011. The club resumed talks with a five-year, $135 million offer and eventually reached a 10-year framework consisting of multiple player options while also including significant deferred money. The proposal in January deferred no money, making its average annual value much higher than the December bid. Neither Pujols nor the club have publicly addressed specifics of the Cardinals’ position.
Holliday says he hasn’t spoken directly to Pujols since spring training but can relate to what he is experiencing.
Although he helped the Cardinals to the 2009 postseason following a trade in July that transported him from Oakland, Holliday felt unprecedented pressure after signing a seven-year, $120 million deal the following January. Holliday returned to the same city, but as the highest-paid player on a team that had just celebrated Pujols’ third MVP season. Holliday’s batting average never dissolved, but he became a pincushion for criticism over his early inability to produce in run-scoring situations. He went 28 games without a home run. He didn’t drive in his 25th run until June 4 (then drove in 65 from July on).
“It was a difficult thing to deal with for a while,” Holliday said. “The contract is what people want to talk about for a while, at least. You want to convince people you’re worth it. It’s a trap that’s very easy to fall into.”
Pujols now hears critique in two cities. His struggle has become nightly grist for ESPN while many fans who once worshiped his accomplishments now thrill to his every failure.
“I completely understand why people are mad or upset and I completely understand his side of it,” Wainwright said. “You’re talking about a once-in-a-generation type player the fans of St. Louis wanted to see finish in St. Louis. I don’t think that’s unfair at all. But you have to understand in today’s game that’s not always possible.”
Oquendo represented more than a coach to Pujols. When frustrated, Pujols typically vented at Oquendo, who was among the few within the organization who could prod the first baseman without blowback.
“The numbers say he hasn’t been himself so far, but he’s close,” said Oquendo, who insists his help is more emotional than technical. “This isn’t the first time he’s dealt with something like this. He always works his way out of it. It’s just important for him to stay positive. It’ll happen.”
After opening 2011 with one home run in his first 43 at-bats, Pujols also endured 29 games without a home run before finishing with 37. He rebuilt his batting average by hitting .355 while also amassing 20 RBIs last September. Those with whom he exchanges texts know that well.
“I think it’s important to remember Albert is just a man,” Wainwright said. “We all hold these superhuman expectations that Albert will hit .330 with 40-something home runs every year. At some point he’s going to have a year or two when he may not do that. This guy loves the game maybe more than anyone I’ve ever met. He spends more time in the cage than anybody.
“He wants to be special. He really cares about being great. He’s trying to get the most out of the ability God has given him. And he’s done that for a long time.