Thursday, December 8, 2011

Light Up That Halo! Albert Pujols Puts Angels On Top


It almost feels like Christmas in Southern California, and perhaps the Los Angeles Angels, Southern California’s baseball team that had a massive shopping spree and stunned the world, bought early holiday gifts. These days, being the greatest hitter in baseball is the easiest way to earn a huge payday and migrate to the realm of glamour in Orange County, a large city in Southern California where many celebrities find a place to call home.

The Angels, however, were in need of an overhaul and recently changed the landscape and spent $331.5 million. This is the greatest free agent signing for the best player of the century. This is Planet of the Apes, not the Rally Monkeys. I often think of Albert Pujols as the cleanest, if not the purest player in baseball, a slugger who is now worth millions after his longtime stay in St. Louis, where he emerged into baseball’s most dangerous hitter. Never before has baseball felt so good in California, as St. Louis fans are saddened by Pujols' departure.

The shock and dashing hopes in St. Louis, and understandably so, are felt tremendously after the second-best player in Cardinals’ history exercised his option by signing as a free agent for $254 million over 10 years with the Angels Thursday. Now, it’s the Angels turn to own the rights of the most high-profile slugger. The Rally Monkey faithful cheered like hell for Prince Albert and the Angels, pulling off one of the biggest blockbuster deals in franchise history and doing just enough to lure a sellout crowd into baseball heaven.

It’s a huge signing, one that turns the Angels into an immediate AL West contender, as Pujols will likely retire in an Angels uniform. Chances are Pujols and C.J. Wilson, one of baseball’s sharpest left-handers who signed as a free agent for $77.5 million over five years, makes the Angels considerably far more superior -- raising expectations after bringing in stronger depth and, more importantly, a power hitter.

What’s likely is that the Angels are going to have to elevate into prime contention, and will have to be lucky if the ballclub demands to rule the league and have influence over the AL West. And so, Angels owner Arte Moreno is smarter than before, making the biggest splash since he brought the franchise and suddenly is building a relationship with one of baseball’s luminaries.

“It’s a very exciting day for the Angels community, for Southern California as a whole,” new general manager Jerry Dipoto said.

This is what the excited fans want to hear, that a slugger accepts roughly $44 million to go west instead of staying in the Midwest, where life after Pujols is strangely untold. By surprise, Mike Scioscia heard about the gratifying news. He received word on an airplane, flying home from baseball meetings. His cellphone rang, he answered it and it was Moreno, his boss, calling him to tell him about the free agency signings that were never envisioned. The reality is, the happiest place on Earth is located on Katella Avenue and State College Boulevard, and in all honesty, Pujols is bigger than Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

Instead of Tinker Bell brightening up the night sky, the Angels can light up that Halo!

It’s the happiest day for the Angels, as the ballclub built natural power, but the team must attain greatness and solidify its national preeminence. Before all of this happened, as irrelevance was the definition, the Angels were the second-best team in town and were loafing in the shadows of the Dodgers. The local fans were thinking BLUE, not red, but now the feeling is not the same with Pujols arriving to town when he was free to move around the country and landed in Orange County.

And perhaps he was the best thing that happened for Moreno and the Angels, along with stealing Wilson from division foes the Texas Rangers. Before all of this, he as the owner took much criticism for being inept and not the businessman with millions who offer a top slugger big dollars. But this time, he wooed Pujols away from the world champion Cardinals. This is not a friendly business but a risky business, if you will, and the Angels were quietly determined to give crazy money to two players that the ballclub obviously thinks are components to ripen into championship form.

Maybe Moreno was nuts to spend this kind of money for a baseball player, but damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It was the first time since he bought the Angels in spring of 2003, a few months after the club won its first World Series, that Moreno refused to fail and restored the team’s identity. As the Dodgers are on the verge of new ownership next summer, Moreno lifted his ballclub into primary considerations locally here in Los Angeles, finally maneuvering his team like an actual owner in command of saving his club’s brand.


This winter, he cleaned out his front office, getting rid of former general manager Tony Reagins, who dismantled the Angels with his lack of aggressiveness and inexperience at the GM position. This winter, he has brought on board two stars from other cities, and now the Angels are considered the favorites to win the American League title. This doesn’t sit too well with other ballclubs, when the Angels haven't had legit power since Vladimir Guerrero and when the team consist of the best pitching staff that has the most depth and talent with the likes of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and the newest member, Wilson.

That guy is Pujols, a future Hall of Famer who is 31 and has played for 10 seasons hitting at least .300 with at least 100 runs batted in. The criticism is from Pujols accepting a 10-year contract that some believes is too long, given his age and eventual decline in productivity. If he begins to slow down late in his career, he can suitably fit in well as a designated hitter, a slugger known for drilling home runs with 445 in his career, on pace to surpass Barry Bonds’ career record of 762 homers.

It comes as a surprise that he established a consistent winner in one day around a sterling managerial staff and a family-friendly ballpark in Anaheim. It comes as a surprise, even though the Angels failed to advance to the postseason for the second straight season all while fans were embittered with the front office for spending millions on inferior outfielder Vernon Wells after acquiring him in a trade that sent catcher Mike Napoli to Toronto. Napoli was eventually traded to the Rangers and bloomed into a top-tier player. It comes as a surprise when Moreno was slammed by irascible fans for promising everyone that he would invest in a slugger to revamp his team, but spared no money in rebuilding the team and was unsuccessful landing a premier free agent.

It comes as a surprise, for sure, but an overhaul was badly needed.