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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pujols, Backe quarrel during BP

Pujols, Backe quarrel during BP
04/09/2008 8:15 PM ET
By Alyson Footer and Matthew Leach /

HOUSTON -- Apparently, Brandon Backe and Albert Pujols aren't the best of friends. They've never liked each other, but until Wednesday, that was one of the better-kept secrets surrounding the mostly friendly rivalry between the Astros and Cardinals.

Pujols and Backe exchanged words as the Astros exited the field during batting practice prior to the series finale at Minute Maid Park. Pujols stopped Backe as the two crossed paths near first base, and, according to Backe, expressed his dissatisfaction that Backe "kept pressing on" about an incident that happened during Tuesday's game.

"[I was] coming off the field and he approached me," Backe said. "I don't know. It's apparent that we don't like each other. That's OK. There's plenty of people I don't like in this game. It doesn't matter. It's baseball. It's the way it goes. The competition between he and I just escalated and it's OK. It's no big deal. This is what makes it fun."

No physical contact was made as the two exchanged words. Manager Cecil Cooper stood nearby, as did several players from both teams.

The altercation between Pujols and Backe stemmed from an incident that did not involve Backe, but did affect one of his teammates. During the eighth inning on Tuesday, Pujols and rookie catcher J.R. Towles collided at the plate as Pujols scored the Cardinals' fifth run. Pujols slid hard into Towles, and while at first glance it appeared to be a clean play, not everyone took it that way.

Pujols called Towles from the visitors' clubhouse after the game to apologize.

"We talked, and there are no hard feelings," Towles said. "It's over with. At the time, I thought I gave him enough of the plate. Everybody else thought the same thing.

"Maybe it's one of those things -- he said that he didn't think he was that close and at that last second he saw me about to catch the ball. He said he didn't want to make an out at the plate. It's one of those things they teach him to do. I accepted his apology. Today's a new day."

Backe said he thought "it was great" that Pujols called Towles. "I thought it showed something. I thought he realized he could have gone a different route. I think that's what it showed."

Backe was emphatic about his belief that Pujols' slide into home "wasn't a very good play," but his anger on Wednesday wasn't about the play as much as it was about Pujols' decision to confront him on the field.

Backe appeared to grow angrier as his conversation with Pujols progressed.

"Because I felt violated," Backe said. "I felt like he confronted me at the wrong time. I don't think it was very professional on his part. It's OK. Cooper was there, and he heard everything. It wasn't going to go any farther than what it did. He had to say his piece to me, I said my piece to him and that's it."

Cooper declined to comment. Pujols had little to say to reporters as he left the field following batting practice, but he did attempt to downplay both the slide and the incident at first base.

"I don't want to talk about it," Pujols said. "I already dealt with it, and I already apologized to the guy. He knew he was going to block the plate, and I don't need to talk about it. Come on. You guys don't need to make this thing bigger and make a bigger deal out of it."

Approached before the game, Pujols had declined to talk about the slide, saying, "I thought we were going to talk about something important."

Manager Tony La Russa, meanwhile, was mystified that there was any issue on the Astros' part. He argued that Towles didn't allow Pujols any place to slide, and that the slugger took the path of least resistance into home plate.

"There wasn't anything wrong with his slide," La Russa said. "I didn't see any finger-pointing during the game, and I haven't heard anything from the other side. Maybe it was TV that raised something. ... The kid is not giving you anything to slide at. So what we teach is, you slide in and you kick his legs out."

After the confrontation between Pujols and Backe, La Russa and Pujols both spoke with Astros veteran catcher Brad Ausmus. La Russa said that he made the same point to Ausmus that he made to reporters: Pujols was not attempting to take anyone out, but was taking the only option to get to home plate.

"There isn't anything there that is any way questionable," he said.

The bad blood between Backe and Pujols may go back several years. According to a source close to the team, Pujols took issue with the premature jubilation spilling over in the Astros' dugout during Game 5 of the NLCS. Pujols won the game for the Cardinals with a three-run homer off Brad Lidge and later commented that Backe was "already popping the champagne" before the Astros had sealed the win.

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