This should never have been a negotiation.
As this day approached, the benchmarks were in place for the St. Louis Cardinals. There was the Mark Texeira deal. There was the Derek Jeter deal. There was the Ryan Howard deal. There was the Alex Rodriguez deal. Those numbers are out there.
Albert Pujols is a better player than all of them. He’s almost a better player than anyone who has ever played the game. The first decade of his career is unparalleled in baseball history. Therefore, it only makes sense that he should be paid accordingly, especially when the contracts of his peers have set the bar. The Cardinals should have walked in and said: we want you to be the highest-paid player in baseball, and we want you to be a Cardinal for life; how can we make both of those happen?
Most of the discussion about what Pujols likely wanted (ten years, $300 million) centered on the fact that he wouldn’t be a $30 million dollar player at the end of the deal. As the old saying goes, this is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish because it’s not about Pujols being able to justify a $30 million salary with his on-field performance at the end of such a contract.
It would have been a celebration of the greatest modern player wearing Cardinal red for his entire career. Paying Albert Pujols $30 million at the end of his career for no better reason than for his being a Cardinal for life is a mere pittance compared to the legend he would have carved out for future generations of Cardinal fans. There aren’t many guys out there who can say that, not anymore. By the end of this deal, the Cardinals would be paying Pujols for keeping his name on the back of one of their jerseys all the way into Cooperstown.
Now, perhaps the greatest hitter that baseball has ever seen will become a free agent. It is at least karmic, and possibly ironic, that the Cardinals’ bitterest rivals, the Chicago Cubs, will be the ones to do what the Cardinals would not: pay Pujols his worth. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least to see the Cubs get into an open bidding war with the Cardinals, because the Cubs have deeper pockets and, dare I say, a greater need for a player of Pujols’ stature. He might not completely reverse fortunes in Wrigley, but the thought of him getting 81 games a year to hit in that park makes it easier to imagine the Cubs finally moving out of the NL Central’s cellar.
Now, the numbers that resonate with fans and history will happen in someone else’s laundry. He’ll get his 2000th hit as a Cardinal, and that will be that. Everything else, his 500th double, his 500th home run, his 1500th RBI, and whatever mythical numbers that should come his way in roughly six years or so, will happen in another team’s jersey. It never should have happened that way, but it will. Pujols jerseys that will precede him into the Hall of Fame with every awesome accomplishment will be emblazoned with something other than a red bird on the front.
This will happen because the Cardinals made a grave error. They mistook the ordinary for the truly great. They dealt with Albert Pujols the way a team would deal with, say, a Manny Ramirez, or a Vladimir Guerrero. This takes nothing away from either Ramirez or Guerrero, both of whom have put up numbers that would make their candidacy for baseball’s Valhalla an interesting discussion (especially in the light of Bert Blyleven’s horn-blowing that got him in the door, probably to shut him up, but I digress). Players like Man-Ram and Vladdy come along all the time.
Players like Albert Pujols come along once in a generation.
He should have been a Cardinal for life, but the Cardinals forsook common sense for the cold wisdom of the bean counters.