Albert Pujols may have left St. Louis, but he’ll be a Cardinal forever

Did the St. Louis Cardinals make a good enough offer to Albert Pujols, or was the superstar slugger wronged by a franchise he helped win a pair of World Series titles?

The question is an ageless one in this town, dividing fans like a discussion about proper bagel preparation methods would. Pujols gave the Cardinals the best eleven years of any athlete in the history of their franchise, and outside of Mike Trout, arguably more than any individual player in baseball history. One would think he was destined to start and finish his career in St. Louis, but the rugged black eye of sports politics, and business, wrecked that dream.

Unlike his best friend and former teammate, Yadier Molina, or the legend who owns the biggest statue out front, Stan Musial, Pujols will finish his career elsewhere, presumably wearing a different red jersey. Seven years later, the image still doesn’t compute. Pujols trotting up to the plate for the Los Angeles Angels, taking swings, albeit more ill-intended ones.

It seems like every year, there’s fresh Pujols intrigue. A new spin on an old tale that is aging quite well. This past April, there was an interview conducted by Graham Bensinger, where Pujols spoke candidly for the first time about leaving St. Louis, coming back, and what exactly went down many years ago when his contract was up and the Cardinals had a chance to crown him a king of the city.

According to Pujols, the Cardinals shouldn’t have let the negotiations linger for so long. The team took their time, not firing up talks until right before Pujols was set to begin his last season under contract, a season where the Cardinals improbably won their eleventh World Series. The initial five year offer worth $130 million seemed like a lame attempt to secure a player that Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak had stated should be a Cardinal for life. Granted, Pujols was 31 years old at the time, so a five year offer would only get him to 36.

Before Pujols accepted the $254 million, ten year offer from Artie Moreno and the Angels, the Cardinals did throw a Hail Mary at the slugger. Their final offer was for ten years and $210 million, albeit with $30 million deferred, meaning paid out well after he would be retired. Think about the contract of Bobby Bonilla, the player who got hurt in order for Pujols to crack the Opening Day roster in 2001. Bonilla is still being paid a salary years after retirement. That’s deferred money.

Pujols balked at that offer, taking his talents to the West Coast. In the years since, has hasn’t hit over .300 once, only slugged .500 or better once, and hit over 30 home runs twice. He’s struck out more and walked less, losing the precise eye that once made Dusty Baker point his arm towards first base in fear of a game-changing hit. Pujols has only been an All Star once in the American League, and qualified for the Most Valuable Player award twice. Suffice it to say, he’s a shell of his former self.

Here’s the question I’ll ask: do you wish the Cardinals had matched the Angels’ offer? A ten year playing contract followed by a ten year services contract, with no opt-outs and a full no trade clause. Pujols had already showed a little decline in the 2011 season, hitting below .300 and managing an OPS just over .900, which was low for him. He was going to turn 32 before the 2012 season got under way, so think about that.

Now, a Twitter follow of mine brought up a good question. If Pujols gets that contract here, do the Cardinals win another World Series or two in the first few years? Following that up, would that make it worth it? The answer to both of those questions is yes. The Cardinals could have made it deeper into the 2012 playoffs, and given the Boston Red Sox a run for their money in the 2013 World Series.

And it isn’t like Pujols has missed a terrible amount of time in Los Angeles. The 2013 season did see him cave in to injuries, playing only 99 games, which may hamper the Cardinals World Series theory. He only played in 117 games last year, but every other season, he’s been on the field for at least 140 games. While the batting average and on-base percentage have taken a steep dive, the slugging percentage, for the most part, has stayed respectable. Unless you look at 2017’s .386 finish.

When it comes down to it, the Cardinals made the right call in not matching the Angels’ offer. The World Series bets are hypothetical instances that may not hold up under scrutiny. With Pujols at first base, the Chicago Cubs still blast the Cardinals pitching in 2015. You can’t overcome Mike Matheny’s inept bullpen management skills in the 2014 playoffs. One guy can only do so much, and a contract offer like Pujols’ negates some of the deals the team has made since.

However, I do admit that the Cardinals’ initial offer of five years was bogus. You don’t treat a legend like that. You could have met him halfway, offered eight years, and more money. Throw in bonus’ for games played and milestones met. The team should have approached the player earlier. It took Mozeliak less than a few months to ask Paul Goldschmidt about hanging around longer, so why wait so long with Pujols. I refuse to believe the guy was a closed door up until the 2011 offseason. Please.

History is history, no matter how much new views and opinions try to change it. When asked about it, DeWitt Jr. admits it was the toughest offseason of his career. Mozeliak would probably agree. The look on Mozeliak’s face at the press conference told the story before he opened his mouth. When a team has the media together in the offseason for a conference about NOT signing a player, the significance is known. Pujols will always be the one that got away.

It was a mutual parting. Pujols felt disrespected, and the Cardinals were shrewd in their dealings. When presented with a nostalgia milk shake, the team chose the wheat grass smoothie. It is what it is. The debate should be fluid and fierce over the breakup, but just know there wasn’t a disconnect. The Cardinals could have matched the final offer, but they didn’t. Pujols could have accepted that final ten year offer, and maybe even tried to push the deferred money away, but he didn’t. Sometimes, money and ego tromp golden memories.

As I’ve said in every Pujols column written here, just appreciate the time spent. The city got the best of Pujols, which included two World Series rings, three appearances in the Fall Classic, and an MVP. Limitless memories of Pujols stepping to the plate, crouching down, glaring out at the pitcher with one eye nearly closed, and set to take a mighty swing.

Remember the time Kerry Wood knocked him down, and Pujols sent the next pitch into the stratosphere? Good times. Remember the walk-off blast against Baltimore in 2005 at old Busch? The mammoth homer off Brad Lidge. The big blast off Roy Oswalt when the Ace pitcher came out in relief. So many moments that never die. Pujols offered those up. In the time since, the Angels have sputtered, and the Cardinals have disappointed. The Cubs rose up, and that may have happened no matter what. Who knows? No one.

It’s okay to be a little mad at each side. When the full interview dropped on television in April, more people will be mad, and there will be articles explaining viewpoints and possibilities. Once again, I hated that Pujols left, but over time, I understood what happened, and appeased both sides. That doesn’t stop me from occasionally having a fit of nostalgia and wanting him back, but in the end, I grow wiser and know better.

Sometimes, things aren’t meant to be. With Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, you may never know everything that happened. You just won’t, and that’s fine. As a wise woman once said, the truth may set you free, but first it will make you mad.

Know this. Pujols is a legend in this city, and the endless ovations he received on Friday confirmed that. Beneath the anger lies acceptance, which gives way to a flooding of memories. For three games in June, store the angst and remember the good times. I’m not shy to admit that I wouldn’t mind seeing him park one over the wall at least once.

(Originally posted on KSDK News in April, updated for this post)

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