Team up with us for 99¢
Cardinals vs Cubs

September 24, 2011 -- Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols talks with teammates in the dugout before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Chris Lee clee@post-dispatch.com

There never has been a day like Sunday will be at Busch Stadium because, as everyone on the continent surely knows, it might be the last day.

For the 854th time in his 11 major-league seasons, Jose Alberto Pujols will hitch up the right hip of his pants, maybe take a hop step and then run to his position for a home game. As much as those who live for the Cardinals might take his .329 career average and his unshakeable attachment to 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for granted, those who clutch a ticket to the contest against he Chicago Cubs realize they hold a potential keepsake, an emotional marker.

The greatest hitter of his generation - perhaps the greatest hitter ever, as teammate Matt Holliday would say - will stand before a crowd that has recognized him as a civic centerpiece, not just merely a three-time Most Valuable Player.

Two years after Pujols' contract status became a white-hot topic, barely seven months after negotiations for an extension went nowhere and now a little more than a month before he reaches free agency, the best baseball city in America might see the game's best player in its home whites one last time. The day will stir emotion among fans, but it has so far engendered mostly dispassionate comments from the club and its signature player.

"I'll let you guys play with it," Pujols said after Saturday's rollicking 2-1 win over the Cubs. "That's not what I'm here for."

Pujols insisted a week ago that he saw little benefit in addressing Sunday's significance with the team embroiled in its chase for the wild card. His manager and advocate, Tony La Russa, likewise has held his tongue. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak acknowledge they have little idea where the next two to three months will take the relationship with a player who next year almost certainly would surpass Stan Musial as the franchise's home run leader. Pujols' impact is significant enough that ESPN will be on hand to chronicle Sunday's potential farewell.

"It's the era we're in," Dewitt said. "Many times they sign back with the same club. With a legendary player like Albert, you hope he stays his whole career with the Cardinals, like Stan did. But that process is going to take place, and we're not sure how it's going to play out. I'm sure he's not sure either at this point."

THE WAITING GAME

The club has scaled back its rhetoric about keeping Pujols a Cardinal for life. Comments now leave open potential for either outcome, something Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, suggested when many called Pujols' return inevitable.

"I still look at this as a period that's very fluid. The outcome is still very open-ended," Mozeliak said. "To reflect on this perhaps being the last weekend that Albert plays in St. Louis is not something I'm prepared to do."

There will be time enough in November and December for hard negotiating and, yes, possible ambivalence by those who will cheer him today. But now is not the time for those feelings to encroach, as Pujols' wife suggested.

"Why grieve about something that isn't done?" Deidre Pujols wondered Saturday. "I would like to look at (Sunday) as a celebration. People may not choose to believe it, but Albert's not consumed by (pending free agency). He wants to do what he can to help his team right now."

Pujols carries 37 home runs, 98 RBIs and a .922 on-base-plus-slugging percentage into Sunday. He has reached base in 40 consecutive games, the longest such streak in either league this season. After reaching the All-Star break with a .280 batting average and production numbers insufficient to earn an All-Star Game invite, he is tied for the league lead in home runs and has rejoined the top eight in all Triple Crown categories.

"When you reflect on his career, it's been a historic run for he and the St. Louis Cardinals," Mozeliak said. "As far as our mind-set, we still believe there is a chance that Albert will be wearing a Cardinal uniform in 2012."

WHAT DOES SUNDAY HOLD?

On the day when Cardinals fans sing the national anthem a cappella, they will save their loudest voice for when Pujols approaches and settles into the box with his trademark squat stance and his tongue askew. The next time they see him at Busch, the relationship might have changed.

Any reaction risks sending mixed signals because the Cardinals still hope to complete a remarkable rush to reach the postseason.

Acknowledging the potential finality that Sunday represents also underscores negotiations still in hibernation.

"If you don't think he's back, you just give him a standing ‘O' every times he comes to the plate," second baseman Skip Schumaker said. "If you do (think he's coming back), you should give him a standing ‘O' for however many years he signs."

The sides have not negotiated this season per the player's request. Some may perceive the absence of talks as discouraging news. The club prefers to view it as only half-empty.

"In a lot of ways, if we had been negotiating during the season, we might have come to a conclusion that didn't have such a pleasant ending," Mozeliak said. "I don't think you can draw from that."

Added DeWitt: "I would expect between the end of the season and free agency, we would make contact and determine whether it's appropriate to engage at that point. That remains to be seen."

That said, the Cardinals finalized a one-year, $12 million extension with right fielder Lance Berkman on Wednesday, illustrating a refusal to be hamstrung by talks that loom as the industry's biggest story this winter.

Mozeliak stated this summer that the club considers upcoming talks with Pujols "independent" of last winter's abortive negotiations. The Cardinals then offered a nine-year deal worth $22 million to $22.5 million per season. Pujols and his representation thought the gulf immense.

The club currently is inclined to remain within that framework, even tightening its length while remaining around the same average annual value.

Such a tactic assumes at least one of two realities: Last winter's bid would stretch payroll to its limit, or they believe the market for Pujols overstated until further notice.

The Cardinals, wary of bidding against themselves, are not inclined to offer another bid until they know their competition. DeWitt insisted Thursday that the club would use the window between the end of the season and the end of the free-agent filing period to restart talks with Lozano - or as DeWitt explained, "to see where they are."

Pujols told a dinner gathering during the Pujols Family Foundation's annual charity golf event that he wanted very much to remain with the Cardinals. More recently, however, he described the process as "out of my control" to USA Today.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Cards have failed to draw 3 million fans just once (2003) during Pujols' term with the club. With the team pointed toward drawing just over 3 million this year, internal projections say it is unlikely the team would achieve the threshold in 2012 without Pujols. A drop of 400,000 would result in an estimated drop of up to $20 million in revenue from ticket and concession sales.

Retaining Pujols still represents "Plan A" in organizational parlance. "Plan B" involves shifting Berkman to first base, installing Allen Craig in right field and exploring trade(s) for offensive help. Money otherwise dedicated to Pujols might go to a veteran closer and/or a middle infielder.

Eight years ago Pujols was on the cusp of his first bite of arbitration and famously said about affording the club a discount in talks for a contract extension, "This is business. ... There are no breaks."

Pujols ultimately signed an eight-year, $111 million extension. On Sunday the club might witness his final act at Busch under its employ. Impassive about the topic Saturday, Pujols might find something stronger awaiting him Sunday.

"Let's see when tomorrow gets here," he said.

And his wife is philosophical.

"I understand how it gets like this, not knowing what the future holds," Deidre Pujols said. "I just think whether we stay or go, it will work out. That's what I'm excited rather than worried. I think its going to be a really great decision."

Keep up with the latest Cardinals coverage from our award-winning team of reporters and columnists.