Hamilton, Pujols share a road to redemption
Pair of Angels differ in most ways, but both enter 2014 with goal of rebounding
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton shut it down for a month, and Albert Pujols swung a bat earlier than ever. Hamilton added 28 pounds to provide more power, and Pujols shed seven and expects to be quicker. Hamilton takes solace in talking about his current challenge, and Pujols scoffs at the notion there even is one.
The two could not be more different -- Pujols as "The Machine," Hamilton as the flawed human -- and yet their situations heading into this critical 2014 season could not be more similar.
For the first time, there is significant doubt centering on the baseball abilities of Pujols and Hamilton, and the two high-priced Angels sluggers are out to prove they still belong among the game's elite.
"Whatever the perception of Josh and Albert might be right now, we have no doubt, and I don't think they do either," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "You don't reach the heights that they've reached as players without being super driven and confident in your abilities."
Dipoto, an ex-scout, has been out there for workouts. He has seen how much easier the ball jumps off Hamilton's bat now that he is at his customary 240 pounds, noticed how much lighter Pujols is on his feet while taking grounders. He reads the projections, lists their credentials -- a combined 14 trips to the All-Star Game, five World Series appearances, nine Silver Sluggers and four MVP's -- and takes the over.
It is so easy to doubt, when the freshest memory is so disconcerting and the ages suggest decline. But one does not have to squint too hard to find optimism, either.
"I'm expecting big years," Mike Trout, the 22-year-old center fielder who has quickly taken the spotlight from the two players to whom he is referring, said just before the start of camp.
"Albert, since I've been with him, I don't think he had a full, healthy year yet, so I'm excited to see what he can do. I've seen him growing up, watching him play. He's unbelievable. With Josh coming in at 240, he hopefully can do what he did against us with the Rangers. His swing looks good, he's worked hard and he's ready to get at it."
Hamilton, 33 in May, has overcome in ways few ever will, going from a blue-chip prospect to a no-hope drug addict to an MVP in one decade. So he can't help but laugh when asked how this challenge compares to all the others over which he has triumphed.
"Oh man, it's a cake walk," Hamilton said. "I've never failed in baseball before. And I wouldn't call it a failure; I just wouldn't call it meeting expectations around me and what I put on myself as a player. My life has been about redemption."
After posting a .305/.363/.549 slash line and starting five straight All-Star teams from 2008-12, Hamilton thought it would be a good idea to lose a whole bunch of weight heading into the first of a five-year, $125 million contract. He checked in at 227 pounds, dropped to 212 by the end of the year and was never right, his .250/.307/.432 slash line helped only by a end-of-season surge that came far too late.
Hamilton had stumbled a lot in his life, and he has no problem discussing those missteps with those who care to listen. But never here, never with a bat in his hands.
"It's tough, because that's always been the one constant and the one thing I know I can go to and escape and be good at," Hamilton said. "That's the one reason, when I was out of the game and it wasn't there, I continued to go back to drugs and alcohol, because that was the outlet that took the place of it."
After taking October off, Hamilton put on 28 pounds, worked with a functional movement coach to get his hips driving through the ball again and tried to remember the kind of player he is.
"I'm confident," Hamilton says. "Already in batting practice, off the tee and things like that, I see who I used to be."
Last year, he can openly say now, that feeling eluded him.
"I just felt like I was searching all year," Hamilton said. "A lot of that had to do with listening to a lot of different people and trying to please everyone and do what they say. For me, it's about trying to understand who I am as a player and who I have been in the past as a player. That's where it's going to be different this year. It's going to be the old me."
Pujols has hardly stopped swinging the bat since the start of October. He is about a year and a half older than Hamilton -- and signed for four more years than him -- but his comeback seems more likely because he doesn't strike out as much, and because nobody has more discipline, because his past is not as checkered.
Over the last 4 1/2 months of the 2012 season, after Pujols had finally shaken the home-run drought and any initial pressure that came with $240 million, only four other players had a higher OPS.
In 2013, when plantar fasciitis in Pujols' left foot and offseason surgery on his right knee turned him into a shell of his former self and limited him to 99 games, he still managed a 116 OPS-plus.
"You are never going to hear excuses out of my mouth," Pujols said. "If you hear me complaining or using an injury as an excuse for a struggle, then correct me. I'm not that type of guy. I struggled because it's part of the game. My first year, I struggled the first month, but look at the last five months. Nobody was better than me after the All-Star Game. You can compare slugging and all that. Last year was the same -- a great start, but the injury happened. ... Look what I was able to do with one leg. It was like having a flat tire and a broken rim. This game is tough enough being 100 percent. Imagine having an injury to deal with. It's hard."
Pujols enters 2014 eight homers shy of 500, a mark that almost seemed like a certainty heading into last season. If he retired today, he would be a Hall of Famer. But all that matters is what he can do now, what he can do for an Angels team that bet on him like no one else would.
As for his own expectations?
"That's not something I'm going to share with you guys," Pujols said, in yet another example of how he and Hamilton are so different. "I'm going to go out and just play, and at the end of the season, we'll see where we're at."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.