Stay in St. Louis! Words of Caution to Albert Pujols
Issue   |   Wed, 11/09/2011 - 01:31

As the baseball cracked off the bat of David Freese in the ninth inning in Game 6 of the World Series, St. Louis Cardinals fans held their collective breath while watching the trajectory of a ball that represented the last, flimsy hope of an unforgettable season. Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, with a World Series championship falling towards him, inexplicably misplayed the fly ball, and as it found the outfield grass for a game-tying triple, the country sat in awe as the Busch Stadium crowd threatened to shatter the eardrums of every Missouri resident. The Cardinals, down to their last strike, rallied behind Freese’s triple to erase the two-run deficit and send the game into extra innings, and one of the most incredible games in recent baseball history became an instant classic.

Even watching on TV, I could feel the energy and jubilation of the crowd when Lance Berkman played the hero the next inning, and when Freese smacked a changeup over the center field wall to win the game, I’m sure many other completely neutral fans around the country joined me in cheering for the sheer brilliance of the moment.

This is what we watch sports for — for every million mediocre games, for every million blowouts and for every million frustrating outcomes, we might see one, just one, transcendent moment like this, when our society’s objectively ridiculous fascination with mere games seems more than justified.

Rare moments like these are imprinted in every sports fan’s memory, connecting a team with a city and a place in time that will never be erased. For me, that moment came in 2007, when the Cleveland Cavaliers, widely considered the underdogs in the Eastern Conference Finals, rose up to beat the Detroit Pistons in six games and advance to the NBA Finals. The unfortunate fact that the Cavs got manhandled in the Finals pales in comparison to the outpouring of joy they caused in a city that has seen nothing but sports heartbreak in half a century. I still remember exactly where I was and what it felt like when the clock ran down to triple zeros in Game 6, after Daniel “Boobie” Gibson’s late barrage of threes clinched the series victory for the Cavs — in fact, I remember it as clearly as if it just happened last night. The city erupted with jubilation, and our irrational love of sports was validated, if only for a fleeting moment.

Why bring up the personal experience of a Clevelander when talking about a St. Louis victory? Well, in that moment in time in 2007, LeBron James and the rest of the Cavs were truly the kings of Cleveland – they had earned universal adulation for what they gave to their fans.

LeBron in particular became more than just a basketball player; he was a symbol of hope for a struggling city. To those who will read this and snicker, “Here goes another sob story about LeBron from a delusional Cleveland fan,” please keep reading and understand that James is not the focal point here. He’s not even worth it. But the adoration that Cleveland felt for him — the fact that he became almost a superhuman figure whose shortcomings were ignored to a fault and whose strengths were praised to no end, no matter what — that is the focal point.

Such status does not accompany every sports star by any stretch of the imagination, but requires a coincidental juxtaposition of luck, mutual respect between a player and the public and victory that is exceedingly difficult to accomplish. Multitudes of athletes have led their teams to playoff victories and championships, but this bond between city and player doesn’t simply stem from winning alone.

Take Alex Rodriguez, who, steroids or no steroids, is unquestionably one of the most talented players to ever play the game of baseball. After years of postseason struggles, Rodriguez overcame his demons and channeled his inner Greg Jennings, putting the Yankees on his back and carrying them to the World Series and an eventual championship in 2009. Yet, Yankees fans will never love Rodriguez as they do Derek Jeter or even Jorge Posada, both of whom represent the great Yankee dynasty in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Albert Pujols currently holds that rarified status in the city of St. Louis, and he faces a decision that cores of rich athletes before him have struggled with. Money or loyalty? And if you think the notion of loyalty in sport is laughable and that players are merely mercenaries ready to play for the highest bidder or the most attention, you may be partially right.

That simple fact states the failure of sports stars to realize the full potential of their careers. Sometimes, taking the most money and running can become career suicide, setting up an enormous amount of pressure to continue performing in an unfamiliar setting. Would Barry Zito, the former ace of the Oakland A’s with an untouchable curveball, take back his move across the bay to the San Francisco Giants, where, for the price tag of $126 million, his career essentially faded into obscurity? I’m willing to bet the answer is yes. Pujols, while in no danger of becoming irrelevant, should not make this mistake.

Although any levelheaded person must admit that significant monetary differences in the value of contracts should influence a player’s decision, Pujols will weigh offers in the hundreds of millions of dollars, where a few million more or less mean relatively little. The last reported offer from the Cardinals was a nine-year, $200 million contract for their aging superstar, and after Pujols’ performance in the playoffs and the subsequent championship parade, management will surely be willing to raise that by a sizable amount.

In the end, Pujols may face a choice between staying in St. Louis, where he will always be revered even if his production falls precipitously in the coming years, or leaving with anywhere from $10-30 million more over the course of the contract and going to a team that expects a return on their investment. This team will undoubtedly demand the numbers he has put up for the last decade, a feat which will become more and more difficult as his prime years fade away.

So, which will Pujols pick? While he has thus far been noncommittal, he needs the Cardinals and the team needs him. After all, who hit a double in the ninth inning of Game 6 to eventually allow David Freese to play the hero? Albert Pujols. Who inspired such fear in the opposing manager that he was issued an intentional walk to set up Lance Berkman’s subsequent season-saving single? Albert Pujols. Who has a statue in St. Louis outside his own restaurant and has become a city icon? Once again, Albert Pujols.

While other stars like LeBron have outwardly expressed the desire to become ‘global icons,’ I hope Pujols realizes that true iconic status can only be achieved by those who transcend the game and who come to represent the beliefs and hopes of a population. I hope that before he signs on the dotted line, he realizes that life as a very wealthy St. Louis Cardinal will be more enjoyable and meaningful than life as a slightly wealthier member of another team.

More than anything else, I hope he remembers the feeling of being not only a World Series champion but winning for the team and city that love him as a hero.

I hope he thinks to himself what fans across America thought during the wild ride that was the 2011 World Series: Can it really get any better than that?