Albert Pujols's Bad Move

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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."

I've argued in the past that Pujols had been the best player in the game for several years and perhaps the best ever. But that's not the point now.  Pujols isn't likely to get better with age, anymore than any player before him has.  Pujols is 32; the only player who ever got better after age of 35 was Barry Bonds, and we all know he had artificial help.  Which means that any team who paid Pujols as much money as the Angels are going to—or even as much as the Cardinals were prepared to—was making a bad business deal. That's their business. 

But it is entirely my business as a baseball fan to pass judgment and say that Albert Pujols has no concept of loyalty.  One of the main reasons he has seemed like such a hero—not just to Cardinals fans but to fans everywhere—has been his oft-stated devotion to St. Louis, to the team, and to their fans. Pujols told us many times over the years, through the press or live interviews, that he wanted to be a Cardinal for life and that St. Louis was the best place in the big leagues to live, play baseball, and raise a family. (He's far from the only one to voice this opinion; most fans and writers who have spent time there call St. Louis the unofficial baseball capital of the country.) Pujols started a highly popular restaurant there, as did the man he calls his reported idol, Stan Musial. (I guess that will be up for sale at a bargain price soon.)  He's even said that he wanted to mean as much to the city as Musial himself has meant.

These were the things that Pujols had in St. Louis, the things that generally come under the heading of "quality of life" and which money is not supposed to be able to buy. He could have had them for the rest of his career—in addition to $220 million. Instead, he chose to walk away from them for an additional $30 million. 

Now we know that it was all about money.

It's possible he can have all this again in Anaheim with the Angels, but there's a very good chance that he because now, in his declining years as his performance inevitably slips,  a great many Angels fans will be saying "Is this what we paid him $250 million for?" 

I don't think St. Louis fans would have ever said anything like that no matter how much his batting average dropped. I think they would have remembered the two World Series flags he had helped them win and his devotion to them.

Albert Pujols made $30 million by going to California, but it will cost him an awful lot. I wonder if he has truly stopped to add it up? Above all, he's lost something he's not ever likely to get back: the loyalty of a city and its fans. 

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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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