04/12/2002 00:38 am ET
Pujols' strength is communication
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Luis Pujols showed what he wanted his managerial reign to reflect before he made a single coaching change.
The day he became manager, he moved the clubhouse entrance to ensure that players would walk by the manager's office on their way to the dressing room. He plans to move the coaches' quarters across from his office rather than down the hallway.
"I want to be close to the players and coaches," Pujols said, "I want to establish a conversation once in a while."
Talk to those Tigers who worked with Pujols last year, and the same theme comes up each time: communication. He isn't doing so to dictate the rules; his demands are limited to punctuality and hard play. It's not that he's a rah-rah skipper or likes to crack jokes; he's guarded with his words and looks constantly serious.
"He communicates. He's always talking with players," said Steve McCatty, one of Pujols' first appointments and the Tigers' new pitching coach. "Sure, it's a job. But you still have to make this fun and make your players enjoy it."
Enjoyment might be Pujols' toughest task taking over a team now off to an 0-8 start, its worst in a half-century. But this is the same man who, though looking anything like a risk-taker, is licensed as a private pilot. Scribbled on Pujols' first workout schedule for his club, then 0-6, was a message for the players: "When you're surrounded, you can fire in any direction and hit the enemy."
"He has a great personality," Dean Palmer said.
If this team goes down to a woeful season, Pujols will ensure that they have a voice in it. He shuffled the lineup with input from hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. He delayed even discussing moving Bobby Higginson out of the leadoff spot until talking to his skeptical left fielder about it.
Nearly all of Pujols' coaching tendencies -- the communication, the emphasis on the running game, the mentoring of young players -- can be traced to his own mentor, Felipe Alou. They lasted as a tandem for eight seasons in Montreal, Alou the manager and Pujols his bench coach. They live a few miles apart in the Palm Beach county area of south Florida.
Asked to sum up what he learned from Alou, he said, "That would take a whole book."
"He has his knowledge of the running game, about offense. He lets the guys play," said McCatty. "When you're with Felipe for nine years, one of the best managers in the game, something's going to rub off."
The similarities are frequent enough that team president Dombrowski was asked whether he had simply hired a younger version of Alou.
"I hope so," he said, "but I don't know. I'd be very happy if Luis ended up as successful as Felipe."
Pujols might have become a manager a few years ago had Alou jumped to a larger-market club, such as the Dodgers after the 1998 season. Alou's regime would have ended on a high note. Instead, Pujols ended up out of Montreal in 2000, a half-season before Alou was replaced by Jeff Torborg.
The Tigers, who caught scattered criticism for hiring Phil Garner in 1999 without interviewing a minority candidate, jumped quickly to promote their first-year bench coach as Garner's replacement.
Pujols won't say he was at the right place at the right time, not after honing his craft for nearly a decade. He nearly gave up on a managerial career after last season. Despite taking the Tigers' Double-A affiliate at Erie, Pa. to the playoffs, he was set to become a roving catching instructor -- the same job he held a decade ago before joining Alou's staff.
"My plan was to go to the minor leagues and coach," Pujols said. "I didn't want to go back to Erie. It was kind of hard being away from family. I believed I did what was needed to be done with those players. Then the offer came in to come up here."
He accomplishments in Erie are all over the Tiger clubhouse. Catcher Mike Rivera, outfielder Andres Torres and pitcher Nate Cornejo became the first wave of young prospects to join the Tigers. Terry Pearson came from seemingly nowhere to crack the Tigers' bullpen in Spring Training. The next youth movement will likely include Omar Infante, the heir apparent at shortstop.
Pujols usually set aside an hour of extra work each day for such drills as pitchers' fielding practice, rundown plays or relay drills. He will take that mindset this weekend into Minnesota, where he has two days of extra batting practice schedule.
"I think it also makes the players feel good," Pujols said. "We can establish a program that the players will follow."
Pujols had another trait similar with many Major League managers -- a long career as a backup catcher. His pro career lasted 15 seasons, nine of them featuring at least a cup of coffee in the Majors. If he can earn a contract extension at year's end, he'll need just another year to manage more Major League games than he played.
As Pujols tried to encourage Alou to join the club as bench coach, Alou was concerned about Pujols' long-term situation. Pujols' response: "I have almost a whole year to show myself. He only had three months when he started out."