JUPITER, Fla. • Two days after insisting that Cardinals camp would be no place for distraction, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa may have offered its first diversion.
Hours before negotiations between the club and first baseman Albert Pujols run into a February firewall, La Russa asserted Tuesday that meddling by the players' union represented a complicating factor in talks.
"I know what he's going through with the union and to some extent his representatives because his representatives are getting beat up by the union," La Russa told a large group of reporters before a workout at Roger Dean Stadium. "Set the bar, set the bar. You've got to deal with it. It's not the way it should be."
La Russa's comments, which expanded on others he made shortly after reaching camp Sunday, drew a strong rebuttal from Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Michael Weiner later Tuesday. Weiner described La Russa as "completely wrong" and insisted that neither he nor anyone else in his office had discussed Pujols' contract with his agent, Dan Lozano.
"We have not had any conversation with Albert, Danny or any of his representatives," Weiner said. "He's represented by an experienced agent. If they want our input, we're available to them."
Tuesday's back-and-forth occurred as general manager John Mozeliak remained in contact with Lozano as today's 11 a.m. deadline approached.
Mozeliak has refused to characterize the talks' status. La Russa, meanwhile, fanned the issue by calling out the union on charges that went beyond arm-twisting.
After insisting he had not discussed talks with Pujols, La Russa accused the union of "dropping an anvil on your back through the roof of your house" during high-profile negotiations such as those involving the three-time NL Most Valuable Player.
Pujols is entering the final season of an eight-year, $111 million contract signed as he became arbitration-eligible. By postponing free agency for five years, he represents one of the biggest bargains in any professional sport. Pujols hopes to surpass the $27.5 million average salary paid by the New York Yankees to third baseman Alex Rodriguez in his next deal. The Cardinals conversely have appeared skittish at making Pujols the game's highest-paid player.
"I think Albert is very tough and very strong, and he's going to make a good decision," La Russa said. "I'm just saying I regret some of the pressure he's feeling trying to make a decision. It's tough enough as it is."
"I have a lot of respect for Tony, but it's just completely wrong that there has been pressure applied here," Weiner said.
Weiner said his recent contact with Lozano has been confined to issues other than Pujols.
Lozano also represents disgruntled Texas Rangers infielder Michael Young, who recently requested a trade after being displaced by free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre. And Lozano represents reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, who last month signed a contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds. Weiner said he did plan to discuss La Russa's comments with Lozano later in the day.
"We act collectively as a union," Weiner told the Post-Dispatch. "The players always have tried to create a Basic Agreement and collective bargaining rules that allow them to make individual choices. Then we respect those choices. We want a market where players have the full opportunity to make those calls. It doesn't really matter if Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols is viewed as the game's highest-paid player. What matters is that the Basic Agreement isn't getting in the way of that."
The Players Association frequently serves in an advisory capacity to arbitration-eligible players, just as the commissioner's office often plays a similar role with clubs. Its role with free agents is less involved, according to Weiner.
"I'm never disappointed when a player makes an informed decision to sign a deal," Weiner said. "The only time I'm disappointed is if a player comes to me and says after the fact, 'If I had thought about that, maybe I would have made a different decision.'"
For example, Weiner said he fully endorsed free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee's decision to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies this winter for fewer dollars than offered by the Yankees.
"What happened with Cliff Lee is exactly what's supposed to happen," Weiner said. "A player is supposed to have that choice. I understand Lee has a right to choose. But (an allegation of union influence) does get trotted out quite a bit."
"As a union guy you think about it a little bit," said Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who signed a deal that potentially pushes back his free agency two years. "At the end, you have to do it for your family. Each player has his own breaking point."
Regarding suggestions that the union leans on its membership to pursue top dollar, McClellan, a former player rep, said, "They may recommend (a salary) by saying, 'We see you at a different level.' But I've never heard them say, 'You can't sign that deal.'"
A twist of timing brings Weiner to Jupiter on Monday as he opens a tour of Grapefruit League training sites. The union chief did not say whether he planned to speak with La Russa but allowed that whether or not Pujols is signed, "I may pull Albert aside and get an update from him."