On the morning of Dec. 8, as Cardinals fans stirred from their sleep, they were jolted into the day with eyes wide open, alarmed by the hot rumor that came with their first cup of coffee.
Albert Pujols was leaving the Cardinals.
The Los Angeles Angels made their move during the still of the night, offering the iconic first baseman a 10-year contract worth $240 million.
Say it isn’t so. After all it was Pujols that said he wanted to be a “Cardinal forever,” just like Stan Musial. So this couldn’t be true. Baseball is a business, but Pujols was family.
Soon the official confirmation traveled at warp speed across the World Wide Web, and announcements were shouted on ESPN and the MLB Network. Pujols was gone. He was an Angel. He’d be taking his talents to Southern California.
The seemingly unbreakable bond between Pujols and the fans was snapped, shattered like a broken bat. After 11 incredible seasons that had delivered three National League MVP awards for Pujols and two new World Series trophies for the hallowed St. Louis franchise, Albert was leaving on a jet plane, bound for Anaheim.
The deal went down nearly a year ago, and it sure was confusing. How is it possible to become an angel, and receive a halo, after leaving baseball heaven?
“My initial reaction was shock,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said Wednesday, in recalling the moment he received the bye-bye call from Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano. “When you negotiate to the very end and don’t get a deal done, the immediate feeling is one of disappointment and frustration.”
Pujols’ voluntary departure left St. Louis roiling in his wake. Fans and media debated the wisdom of both parties’ decision.
Point • Pujols made a mistake in leaving. The Cardinals offered him a 10-year contract for at least $200 million, and the final figure could reach $220 million. That’s plenty.
Counterpoint • No, the Cardinals made the mistake in letting him leave. If you’re going to offer the guy $220 million, then what’s another $20 million — especially considering all that he’d done for the franchise?
Point • Pujols was disloyal to the fans and didn’t appreciate what he had here.
Counterpoint • Wrong — the Cardinals were disloyal to Pujols and took him for granted.
The debate raged for months. A year later, some hard feelings undoubtedly remain, but the anger has subsided.
A year later, I don’t believe Cardinals fans are still sweating the loss of Pujols. The opposite is probably true. Pujols has nine years to go on his contract, and that’s a long way to go for a player that turns 33 next month.
The 2012 season certainly reduced the anxiety level in our baseball village. Even after losing Pujols and not having Lance Berkman available because of injuries, the Cardinals were fortified by the robust production cranked out by Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and others that took turns playing first base. As a group, Cardinals’ first basemen batted .293 with 21 homers and 113 RBIs.
Right fielder Carlos Beltran, signed to replace a significant portion of Pujols’ offense, clobbered a team-leading 32 homers and drove in 97 runs and was voted onto the NL All-Star team.
When Pujols declined the Cardinals’ offer, management redirected funds into a new five-year, $75 million contract for catcher Yadier Molina, the team’s best player. And instead of being squeezed by the Pujols contract for the next nine years, the Cardinals are in position to benefit from comfortable payroll flexibility.
“We had a pity party at first,” Mozeliak said. “But after a few days, we knew we had to move forward without the most iconic player to come through St. Louis since Stan Musial. We rolled up our sleeves, and went back to work. We had to take a different path. But we were confident we could return to the postseason.”
The Cardinals made the playoffs and appeared to be on the verge of going back to the World Series, only to stall and be overtaken by the San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series.
Pujols and the Angels trudged through a dissatisfying season and failed to make the playoffs, finishing third in the AL West. Despite the extravagant signing of Pujols and free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson, the Angels suffered a drop in home attendance and local television ratings. Their average attendance of 37,799 was the lowest in Arte Moreno’s 10 years as the Angels’ owner. And among the 30 MLB teams, only the Houston Astros (record: 55-107) had lower TV ratings than the Angels.
Pujols got off to a startlingly poor start, batting .212 with one homer and 14 RBIs in his first 36 games. Pujols also struggled late in the season, hitting only one homer in 130 at-bats after Aug. 28 as the Halos fell out of contention.
Pujols’ overall numbers were good: a .285 batting average, 30 homers, 105 RBIs. But statistically it was Pujols’ worst major-league season, and he’s trending downward. His batting average, home run total and on base percentage have decreased in each of the last four seasons. His slugging percentage and home-run total have dropped in each of the last three seasons.
Pujols is still a formidable and respected hitter, but that isn’t the point. The heftiest section of Pujols’ contract doesn’t kick in until 2014, and he’ll collect $212 million over the final eight years. The Angels will pay Pujols a total of $87 million in his age 39, 40, and 41 seasons.
Pujols also suffered a plunge in status. When Pujols homered on Sept. 13, it was No. 475 in his career. That’s an epic number in St. Louis sports; Musial had 475 career homers. If Pujols had hit No. 475 as a Cardinal, the event would have prompted a joyous, sentimental celebration. But in Anaheim, the accomplishment was an afterthought, acknowledged through polite applause.
In Anaheim, 475 is just another number. And that’s what Pujols gave up when he signed with the Angels. He gave up membership in a highly exclusive club of all-time greats that played every game for one franchise. They’re in a truly special category. They are elevated above other stars.
“I think about that with Albert, and in a way it makes me sad,” Mozeliak said.
Still, the Pujols-STL bond remains connected on the personal side. Pujols and family still live here, and Albert and wife Deidre have continued their generous community service through their active, dedicated Pujols Family Foundation.
At a fundraising gala Saturday night at The Chase hotel, Albert and Deidre addressed guests and reiterated their commitment to helping area children. through their charitable organization. Deidre pointed out that baseball is Albert’s job, and that job has taken him to Anaheim — but St. Louis is still the home base for their lives and humanitarian efforts.
I sincerely applaud Albert and Deidre for that. Locally, the reaction to Pujols’ joining the Angels was harsh and hostile. But Pujols still wants to be here to enhance the lives of Down syndrome children.
That’s admirable. One day, I believe we’ll see a happy reconciliation among Pujols, the fans, and the Cardinals. Don’t ask me when or how this will happen. But Pujols and Cardinals fans had an extraordinary relationship, and the positive history will eventually rekindle the warm feelings.
We will never forget the hurt feelings that set in a year ago when Pujols headed to Anaheim. But there will be a time for forgiveness.
“St. Louis is a special place to play baseball,” Mozeliak said. “It’s like walking through a cathedral of our sport. Time heals. As the years go by, we’ll remember all of the good things. I don’t expect it to ever be quite the same. But Albert is a genuinely good person, and he has a huge heart, and people will always appreciate that.”