Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pujols Now Channels Howard, Not Bonds

DETROIT - The first day of the 102d World Series presented itself early as the kind of drizzly, chilly fall day perfect for many things, if not exactly baseball.

It was, however, a perfect time for quiet reflection before the storm for the American League champion Detroit Tigers and National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, their obligations to explain their feelings and thoughts on hold until after Game 1.

Such is the cloistered atmosphere in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa insists the real Albert Pujols comes to life.

Take his word for it, La Russa implored at every postseason stop leading to the Fall Classic. And most of the world had little choice, as the man who is arguably the game's most prolific and versatile hitter constructed a wall this postseason between himself and the public.

Which is why Friday - the workout day before the start of the 102d World Series - proved so enlightening.

Pujols, who smacked a two-run homer in last night's 7-2 victory over the Tigers,end stepped into this World Series in a big way by stepping away from a growing opinion that he not only is mimicking Barry Bonds, the great player - but also Barry Bonds, the sometimes grating, churlish personality.

Friday, however, Pujols was channeling another larger-than-life slugger - outgoing Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, his main competition for 2006 National League most-valuable-player honors.

"I'm in the World Series," Pujols declared. "Of course I am happy."

The 26-year-old not only wanted the world to know his mind-set, but his teammates as well.

"I've been in the postseason five of the last six years. I've been blessed. So I told the young guys, 'Enjoy. You don't know when you're going to be here again.' "

Then there was his message to the media, an entity those he believes are responsible for the "underdog" labels his team has carried throughout October.

"I'm just glad those people who told us we were going to be out in the first round and in the second round - that the Mets would get us in five [games] - hey, here we are," he said.

Alas, the Cards are viewed as underdogs again.

"People say we're going to be gone in four games," he said with a thin smile. "We'll see."

Pujols desperately doesn't want that prediction to play out - as it did in 2004 when he and the Cardinals were swept from the Series by the Boston Red Sox.

So his modest first wish for this Series was understandable: "To win one game."

Obviously, Pujols wants more than just that.

"You need to be greedy," he said. "I don't care how much money you would make or how many awards you win. It's not about that. If you don't win a World Series for you and your fans and your family, it's not enough."

Winning it all, said Pujols, "That's every little boy's dream."

The yearning explained somewhat the intensity and, yes, surliness that Pujols displayed through a tense seven-game National League Championship Series.

First, Pujols was banged up throughout. On top of that, Mets pitchers, borrowing from the How Not to Pitch to Bonds playbook, didn't exactly go after him.

In the end, Pujols had but one RBI in 22 at-bats despite seven hits off Mets pitching. Pujols' overall frustration spilled over and was most visible in curt comments he made about Mets veteran pitcher and future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.

Friday, whatever was eating Pujols seemed in the past. Ahead, he saw nothing but things to be grateful for.

Things such as competing for the crown against his fellow Dominican Republic native and best friend, Placido Polanco.

Let Tigers manager Jim Leyland and La Russa play down their close friendship for the duration of the Series. Pujols will do no such thing. Not when it comes to the former Phillie-turned-Tigers second baseman he planned to dine with Friday night.

"You can't mess with a relationship you have with your best friend just because of a ball game," said Pujols, godfather to Polanco's son. "If we lose, I am going to be happy for him. Whoever wins, we're both going to be happy."

Albert Pujols, happy. The world is about find out whether that added dimension makes a dynamic player even better.

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