A Cardinals fan warns the city against vilifying the slugger, who's moving to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The night before Albert Pujols agreed to his $250 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, I ran into him in a dream. Albert sat on a bench with his wife, Deidre, in a dimly lit, concrete parking garage—possibly located near Busch Stadium—his eyes welling up with tears. He sat upright, his paunch slumping out in front of him, like it always does in his semi-baggy uniform, as the two talked about the future.
At the time, I thought Pujols might sign with Miami, and I couldn't blame him for it. Much closer to the Dominican Republic, Miami would make his charity work easier. Playing with Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, both superstars in their own rights, Pujols could form the best nucleus of Latin talent in the MLB—a formula for baseball renaissance in Miami, despite the garish new uniforms and the team's tendency to, you know, sell off all its best players after winning championships.
I stopped in the parking garage to tell Pujols and his wife that I didn't envy their decision, and that we, the die-hard fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, would understand if he left. It was his decision, I told him. Then I stole a car.
But he didn't sign with Miami; he took a deal with the Angels that, at first blush, makes sense only in monetary terms. The dream is over. Albert Pujols is no longer a St. Louis Cardinal. And I have to say I'm not okay with it. At least not yet.
For Cardinals fans, the utter dismay at Pujols's departure can be overstated—but it's tough. Waking up to the news, via text message from a sports-agent friend, was like getting kicked in the solar plexus by Steven Seagal, except more painful. Here's why: The Angels deal came out of left field. (Haha, left field. I am nearly crying as I write this. I can't go on. I'll go on.) The Marlins, I could understand. But on Wednesday, before the late Angels offer became clear, it seemed like Albert was headed back to Busch and a lifelong Cardinal career, destined to break records with the club that groomed him. The next Stan The Man. El Hombre. Pleasure in this expected outcome wasn't about cultural trends of old school vs. new school, of the good old days when players stuck with one team for the long haul. It was about Albert and how Cardinals fans feel about him. And it's the sheer surprise of the Angels deal that will wreak psychic devastation on the Cardinal fan base, which encompasses large swaths of the Midwest, and even the Southwest, a product of KMOX's strong signal on clear nights. (I listened to parts of the 2011 World Series in my car in Washington, D.C.)
This may be the biggest let-down in franchise history. Recent history, at least. It tops the retirement of Ozzie Smith, Ricky Henderson breaking Lou Brock's steals record, Barry Bonds breaking Mark McGwire's home-run record, the slow realization that McGwire had juiced, Rick Ankiel's playoff meltdown and the demise of his promising pitching career, and the 2004 World Series loss to Boston.
ESPN routinely notes that Pujols has broken all-time records for any player's first 11 major-league seasons—number one in home runs (445), number one in RBIs (1,329), number one in total bases (3,893)—but a simple fact about Pujols hasn't fully been absorbed: He may very well end his career as the greatest baseball player of all time. There is a real possibility of that.
And he is no longer a Cardinal. There's not much else to say.
I know there will be some backlash against Pujols. Spite from fans. A feeling of betrayal. Declarations of Albert's pettiness and speculations about its dimensions. He wasn't always the warmest guy to media; maybe his fragile ego left him offended by the manner in which the Cardinals offered him $220 million over 10 years; maybe he sulked when the Cardinals made big-dollar commitments to outfielder Matt Holliday and pitcher Adam Wainwright; maybe he wanted all the money for himself and didn't really want to see, like he claimed, an organizational commitment to winning; maybe he's a humongous, greedy traitor who doesn't really care about winning at all. And he went to the American League, no less, where he'll likely fill out his late-career stats as a designated hitter. (As a New York Mets fan told me today, "I have no respect for the AL. I have more respect for embezzlers." St. Louis, a National-League city, also feels this way.)
On Thursday morning, the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website looked like this: