Despite keeping his distance during the final volley of talks between the Cardinals and free agent icon Albert Pujols, former Redbirds manager Tony La Russa believes the divorce of the defending World Series champions from their three-time National League MVP last week was "unavoidable."
La Russa, scheduled to appear Saturday afternoon at an autograph show in Clayton, described Pujols as "conflicted" about the decision when he spoke to his former player several hours after Pujols made his decision last Thursday. The impression has only hardened since, La Russa said.
"There's a lot to explain why Albert is going there," La Russa told the Post-Dispatch. "Mostly, I think it's the system."
La Russa said Pujols has been "in pain'' since he accepted the Los Angeles Angels' 10-year, $254-million offer.
"I know it was a painful decision and it pains him now," La Russa said. "He deserves what he got. He earned it. There's no bad guy here. I think the Cardinals went where they thought they should go. If they can't go farther, they shouldn't."
La Russa underscored the sense of disappointment Pujols felt about the Cardinals' negotiating tactics and recounted a process that left the Angels to overwhelm the Cardinals' bid and Pujols to 'struggle" with reconciling their aggressive interest against the Cardinals' cautious approach.
"I believe in Albert's case he was disappointed there wasn't more enthusiasm from the Cardinals," said La Russa, who said he didn't speak to Pujols during last week's whirlwind negotiations that coincided with Major League Baseball's winter meetings in Dallas. "The (Miami) Marlins came at him hard and then here comes Anaheim. I think that the Cardinals were being careful."
La Russa held a unique vantage to a negotiating process that struggled for footing two years ago, included failed talks last January and ultimately led to a result that surprised many among the team's fan base.
Careful not to second-guess either party, La Russa thinks the outcome was "one of those things that's absolutely unavoidable no matter how sincere both sides are."
Said La Russa: "People can disagree. I can see where Albert's coming from. And I can see the Cardinals' position also."
La Russa, the franchise's winningest manager, believed once Pujols reached free agency that market forces would make it extremely difficult for the Cardinals to retain him. Insisting he didn't want to play Monday morning quarterback regarding talks, La Russa nonetheless allowed "there may be something to it" when asked if the club might have fumbled its best opportunity at a resolution long before Pujols filed for free agency.
"The organization has a certain value it can afford," La Russa said. "It has good money but it doesn't have great money. I wouldn't second-guess the value they attached, especially given the fact they wanted to see what the market was for Albert. In the end, that's probably why they didn't come out too hard. Then there's a big blowout offer (from the Angels) that I don't see how it can be refused."
La Russa saw the same occur in talks with former shortstop Edgar Renteria and postseason pitching hero Jeff Suppan, who both left the Cardinals after the team reached the World Series.
Despite living two time zones away, in California, La Russa is aware of the exponentially greater blowback that has greeted Pujols' decision.
"I think he made a mistake when he said it wasn't about the money," La Russa said, referring to Pujols' oft-quoted claim in February 2009 that he would stay in St. Louis for millions less per year. "If the Angels had offered the same exact thing he would have gone back to the Cardinals. I think his point was he was ready to sign for less than the best offer. I think he's sincere. I think he was trying to make it work. But you had a club that made an overwhelming offer."
La Russa knows he will be asked his thoughts during this weekend's appearance and plans to restate his position.
"Seeing the negativity that's come out since, I regret it for our fans to think that," he said. "I regret it for Albert and his family."
Any conspiracy theories that tie his decision to retire to Pujols' departure are unfounded, La Russs insisted.
Managing in the major leagues "33 years is why I quit. I'd had enough."
But he's not quitting with his charity work locally.
Seven weeks after his abrupt announcement to step down as manager, La Russa remains in close contact with St. Louis. He has arranged a two-day benefit at the Peabody Opera House that begins Jan. 13 with an extended review of the 2011 season and postseason rush.
The event, co-hosted by La Russa and broadcaster Bob Costas, will intersperse the MLB and team videos of the season with La Russa's analysis and insight to a turnaround summer. The event will include a question-and-answer session.
La Russa also hopes this weekend to announce the full array of talent to be featured at the concert Jan. 14 benefiting his Animal Rescue Foundation.