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As Pujols contract talk boils over, a gloom descends

As Pujols contract talk boils over, a gloom descends

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At the exact moment the dreaded deadline for a new Albert Pujols contract with the Cardinals expired — itself a battle over unimaginable riches, or Albertaggedon, as it was cheekily called with more than a little uncomfortable truth behind the name — the 11 a.m. daily tour of Busch Stadium went off without a hitch.

It featured a group of six people who still believed. And on Wednesday they paid $10 each for the right to walk through an empty stadium. Ten bucks a head for just that.

No one was in the stands. Nothing was happening on the field. The stadium's electronic billboards flashed colorful test patterns. Snow still covered part of the infield — and it was impossible to miss where the frozen snow remained: all around first base, up and down the line, Pujols' home for seven of his 10 stunning seasons and his home for maybe just one more.

In the stadium gift shop, where you could find $129 Pujols jerseys and $20 Pujols toddler tees, televisions above the cash registers bellowed with breaking news: Contract talks between Pujols and the Cardinals had broken down. Pujols, possibly the greatest baseball player of his generation and the face of a baseball franchise that is itself the face of an entire region, was headed for free agency at season's end and maybe, gulp, another town.

The stadium was silent. It was the offseason, true. Opening day was still six weeks away. But this quiet felt different. It felt funereal. Something had changed, as if the stadium and all of its trappings meant to evoke a hallowed and special history was suddenly just another workplace. On this day, it felt like it was only about the money. And no one pays 10 bucks a head to tour a corporate office park.

That's the danger of caring. It's the fear of being a fan.

It's when the real world of "it's just business" intrudes on the fantasy provided by "root, root, root for the home team." (Notice the lack of a verse about payroll.)

It's when money pierces the safe escape provided by home runs, legendary fielding feats and the comfort that, unlike so many people, these players do it "for the love of the game."

No parent tells a kid that Pujols is a role model because of the millions he earns.

Pujols is a role model for how he plays the game and carries himself — stiffly, quietly, with a spooky intensity — and wins. His standing only grows with an unblemished personal life — his charity work and family.

The fan's illusion always required turning a blind eye to money. A silly notion. Childish. Yet money was always part of the equation. It had to be. It is only fair. The best should be paid the best. And for Pujols the calculations tend to bounce around hard-to-fathom numbers: $150 million for five years, $220 million for eight or $280 million for 10.

In recent weeks, opinions on Pujols' worth have sprouted among fans and journalists, on TV shows and talk radio, blasted across the web. Cardinals chairman Bill Dewitt Jr. should just pony up. Or he should play hardball. No player is worth mortgaging the entire team. Pay him. Don't. Rumors of deals done and undone flourished and faded. An opinion was seemingly held by everyone.

And so was the anger. So much anger. At the Cardinals ownership for being stingy. At Pujols and his agent (his "LA-based" agent, it was sometimes pointed out, as that familiar fear of outsiders reared its head) for being greedy. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa even pointed an accusatory finger at the players' union, saying it was pressuring Pujols to 'set the bar" and pursue top dollar.

"Everybody is freaking out," said David Hanon, co-owner of the Pujols 5 restaurant in Maryland Heights.

Including him. The restaurant, which displays many of Pujols' awards and has associated itself as closely as possible with the slugger, hosted a deadline watch party Wednesday.

They had champagne on ice, ready to go.

No need.

Outside Busch Stadium, a cluster of 10 sculptures of St. Louis ballplayers looked forlorn. They were not surrounded by a crowd, as they would be on a game day. Their images represented the game's local legends: Sisler, Gibson, Brock, Schoendienst and Musial, among others.

Pujols could end up there with his famous swing immortalized, even if he leaves. Eight of the 10 players played for other teams, too.

But the plaques affixed to the sculptures note only the players' achievements. No mention is made of how much money they made.

What everyone wants now, no doubt, is for the game of baseball to take center stage, for the actors to resume their roles and for the script to play out just as envisioned in the minds of children, where money is not talked about and contracts are not the center of the discussion, where heroes play just for that love of the game.

That's wishful, of course.

But that's what we've been sold.

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