Albert Pujols's Bad Move

The slugger will make $30 million for going to LA—but he'll lose a lot more

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Reuters

Loyalty is a word that is bandied about all too often in professional sports. For perhaps the 20 years after free agency came to baseball in 1976,  sportswriters, taking their lead from baseball owners, were quick to accuse ballplayers of not showing "loyalty" to their old teams when they went to a new one. 

It took years of counterarguments from the players and a handful of contrarian-minded writers to finally get it into everyone's head that loyalty is a door that swings both ways. When teams got a better offer and pulled up stakes for a new city, loyalty was almost never mentioned. Those in the media simply took it for granted the right of a businessman to relocate anywhere that was more favorable to his business.

If loyalty was mentioned during those pre-free-agency years, I failed to read about it in decades of research. For the first 100 years of the game, when a team traded or sold a player, it was generally assumed that since the player, or at least his contract, was the property of a team that the team had a right to do what they chose with its property.  It wasn't until 1976, when an arbitrator's decision gave the players the right to become free agents, that the issue of loyalty suddenly entered into the equation. It was then, and only then, that a player could choose whether or not money or something else mattered most to him.

Misty-eyed nostalgists decried the new way that off-season baseball was played. "Players didn't switch teams like that in my day," they'd say. "They had a sense of loyalty." Yes, they did, and no they didn't. Players didn't switch teams more often after 1976 than before. It's just that before then they were traded or sold, and afterwards they mostly moved of their own volition.  And they didn't stay with the same team for years out of loyalty, they stayed because the reserve clause in every contract bound them to a single team for life unless the team decided otherwise.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Marvin Miller, the man who started the Major League Baseball Players Association, on his 1991 autobiography, A Whole Different Ballgame: The Story of Baseball's New Deal. I've always been entirely and without reservation in favor of a player getting all he can.  Baseball salaries are the one true example of the pure and unadulterated free market that conservatives dream of in action. (And I can think of no greater irony in sports than the fact that the players had to get the right to free agency through a union.)

I'm all for Albert Pujols getting a 10-year, $250 million deal from the Los Angeles  Angels of Anaheim, the second-largest contract in baseball history after the ten-year $275 million extension the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007, which topped the then-previous record, the 10-year $252 million contract the Texas Rangers gave A-Rod in 2000. 

It's none of my business why Pujols chose the Angels' offer over the Cardinals' reported ten-year, $220 million. It's none of my business that from the team's standpoint, neither offer made any sense.  Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made perfect sense some time ago when he said the club's strategy would be to "base its offer on forward projections instead of paying for past performance."

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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