The waiting is the hardest part for Albert Pujols


Waiting for Albert ...

Baseball’s best power hitter strolls to the plate at 7:17 p.m. Thursday and a stadium grows silent. A dozen games ago those fans were standing, but they have long since been left hanging, so now they are plopped on their hands and stilling their hearts.

When is Albert Pujols going to hit his first Angels home run?

This is a masher who has hit an average of one homer every 14 career at-bats, yet entering the game Thursday against the Oakland Athletics he had gone 49 at-bats without one. His first two weeks as an Angel without one. A $240-million contract without one.

He’s never started the season in a bigger drought. He’s never started the season under a bigger cloud. Everyone is quiet, but everyone is questioning.

When is a guy who ranks fifth on baseball’s active home run list with 445 home runs going to hit as many this year as Peter Bourjos?

Pujols strolls to the plate in the first inning against kid lefty Tommy Milone, looks at two strikes, watches a ball, fouls a pitch over the home-plate screen, takes another ball, then weakly pops out to Milone amid thousands of groans.

“You really think I worry over home runs?” Pujols asks me before the game. “Would I have 445 home runs if I worried about hitting them? I never think about that.”

I’m visiting with him in the Angels clubhouse and, for someone under such increasing pressure, he is amazingly cordial and cool. He smiles. He laughs. Mostly, he shrugs.

“You want to talk about the pressure of a new contract, the pressure of playing in a new place ... you go ask a rookie about all those things,” he says. “You don’t wonder about those things with a guy who has been in baseball 11 seasons.”

Waiting for Albert ...

At 8:20 p.m., he steps to the plate in the fourth inning for his second at-bat, takes a strike, then lowers the bar to an entirely new level. He fouls a pitch that soars into the press box and lands at my feet. This meaning he has now hit more balls to me than over the fence.

He eventually lines a sharp double into the left-field corner, and the fans are now screaming that something good has finally happened, but it’s not exactly what they want, it’s not exactly what anybody wants.

There is a feeling that the slow-starting Angels are all waiting for their leader to finally brandish his sword, waiting for the glint and the slash and the cry, somehow believing that the season won’t officially start until Pujols does.

“I can’t wait until I hit a home run so you guys can stop talking about it,” he told reporters after the game. “I don’t know when it’s going to be. I’m just trying to get some good at-bats.”

He mentions beforehand his concern isn’t home runs, it’s victories.

Of course, that’s not happening either, the Angels losing 4-2 to the A’s Thursday to fall to 4-9 in an early season where almost nothing has gone as planned. Pujols was hired to be a symbol for this team. So far, unfortunately, he is.

Waiting for Albert ...

At 8:51 p.m., on a two-strike curveball from Milone in the fifth inning, Pujols takes a mighty swing and throws the bat and watches the ball going, going ... and thudding off the top of the left-field fence, about one foot short of becoming his first homer. More screams. More sighs. But this time, something new. Pujols stands on second base staring at the wall and claps his hands together in a giant show of frustration.

The Machine is human. No matter what he says, even ever so slightly, the Machine is feeling it.

Waiting for Albert ...

At 9:37 p.m., in the seventh, he crushes his third ball of the night, driving a fastball into right-center field for his third double, fans standing and applauding his sheer force. Yet he is eventually stranded on second. And for now, he is stranded on zero.

At 10:17 p.m., in the ninth inning, he hits a grounder that scorches third baseman Josh Donaldson and leads to a bad throw and an error. So he reaches base again, but just one of them, and his homerless streak is now 54 at-bats and counting.

His career homer drought is 107 at-bats, set early last season. He eventually broke out of it to lead the Cardinals to a World Series championship. There is no reason to doubt that he won’t find that swing again. There is every reason to go crazy watching him search.

“Is it a two-week season? If it’s a two-week season, then we need to worry,” he says. “Tell you what. Come to me in September and we’ll talk about the home runs.”

Waiting for Albert ...