ST. LOUIS • When his career ends and immortality starts to arrive, it will be Cardinals fans who get the first crack at putting Albert Pujols into one of baseball’s Halls of Fame, plaque and all.
According to current eligibility rules, Pujols will be on the ballot for the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame three years after he retires — two full years before he becomes eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the writers’ ballot. That means if Pujols completes his current contract and retires, he’ll be a part of Cardinals Hall of Fame Class of 2025, slipping on a red jacket with the embroidered redbird and posing with a plaque that features engraved pictures from his 11 years in St. Louis.
Fans can make that happen. No question. Little drama. And it will be about 23 months before Pujols heads to Cooperstown, N.Y., as a first-ballot inductee, set to see his likeness in bronze besides the game’s giants.
That’s when it really gets interesting.
The three-time MVP and former Cardinals first baseman is on the brink of 3,000 hits. He is one shy of tying Roberto Clemente’s career total and becoming the 32nd player in baseball history to reach 3K. It, like so many of his career milestones, will happen in an Angels’ jersey, the one he’s worn since leaving St. Louis after the 2011 season and World Series championship.
When he inevitably homers — that’s how this works, right? — or doubles or singles for 3,000, he’ll earn a $3-million bonus due to a clause in his contract — one that is no longer allowed by baseball and the players’ union. It’s one of three buried in his contract that are no longer possible.
The other is a $10-million player option that he can exercise only after retiring, and it is tied to a 10-year “personal services” contract. In effect, he’ll be an employee of the Angels and can serve as spokesman, spring training instructor, ambassador, or front office member. It’s somewhat like the deal the Cardinals have with a handful of their iconic players.
According to the contract, Pujols can step away at any time.
What this means — or, rather, what this allows — is that when he is elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, when he visits Cooperstown, N.Y. for his personal tour, and when he talks with the Hall about the logo that will appear on his hat, he will likely be doing so as an employee of the Angels.
His milestones …
- 3,000 hits
- 600 home runs
- 2,000 RBIs
- And so on
… will have come as an Angel.
Sure, less than half of his playing career will have been with the Angels (11 years to 10), but with extended employment after his playing career more than half of his time in professional baseball will have been with the Angels (13 years to 15).
There is a finger on the scale.
Dating back to Wade Boggs and some shenanigans alleged about Tampa Bay offering him a bonus if he had a Rays’ logo on his cap, the Hall of Fame has taken a more public role in determining the hats perched on each inductee’s plaque. The Hall has clearly stated that it will take input from the inductee but the Hall, as custodian of history, has the final say.
“The Hall of Fame plaque, which serves to reflect the totality of a career, details an individual’s accomplishments in the game in approximately 90 words, while listing each team on which an individual played or managed,” a spokesman wrote me in an email recently. “An artist rendering of the individual being honored tops the Hall of Fame plaque, and in many instances, a cap – where a logo may or may not be featured – is included. In conjunction with the Hall of Fame, electees make their selections on which logo appears on the plaque, but the Hall of Fame retains the final decision. The choice of logo, if any reflects where the electee made his most indelible mark and does not necessarily reflect where the electee played the most games.”
The phrase that matters here is this: “indelible mark.”
It is also one that can be debated.
Joe Torre, an accomplished player and manager who had strong ties to four teams, made his “indelible mark” with the New York Yankees and wears the interlocking NY into the Hall. The aforementioned Boggs won his World Series championship with the Yankees, but his plaque features a Red Sox logo on his cap because that was his first team, where he won batting titles, and made his “indelible mark.” Gary Carter has an Expos cap for his impact there, and not a Mets hat. Andre Dawson also has an Expos cap despite his wish, which he shared with The Palm Beach Post: “When I think about them immortalizing a cap, it would be the Chicago Cubs for a lot of personal reasons.” He called the decision to put the Expos logo on his plaque “a little gut-wrenching.” (Worthwhile note: He was an employee of the Marlins at the time, and that’s where he finished his career.)
Bruce Sutter had more games with the Chicago Cubs than he did the Cardinals and he won a Cy Young Award with the Cubs, yet he has a STL on his plaque because of his “indelible mark” as a World Series champion with the Cardinals.
The mark Vladimir Guerrero left in Montreal was obvious this past March when the Cardinals visited for an exhibition series against Toronto and Guerrero’s son, a Blue Jays’ prospect, was greeted with an ovation at every turn. His walk-off home run in the second game of the series shook Olympic Stadium. He even wore his father’s number, 27, as he played. Montreal was where his father became a star, where his father was a four-time All-Star, where his father played more games than anywhere else in his career.
Yet, Vladimir Guerrero’s plaque will have an Angels logo.
His will be the first Angel cap in the Hall.
“What it represents now and all the winning that happened while I was with the Angels,” he explained in a press conference.
Sure enough there are some “indelible marks” from his time there: Five division titles, a visit to the American League championship series, and his 2004 Most Valuable Player award.
That is the kind of resumé that Pujols had with the Cardinals.
Only, you know, more.
In 11 seasons with the Cardinals, Pujols reached the playoffs seven times, compared to once so far with the Angels. He won two World Series championships with the Cardinals, 2006 and 2011. That’s as many titles with the Cardinals as he has postseason RBIs with the Angels. He has two postseason hits with the Angels, though one is a home run. His three MVPs came with the Cardinals, as did all but one of his 10 All-Star selections. His round numbers will be reached as an Angel, but the bulk of his stats were collected as a Cardinal.
Consider this, his worst season with the Cardinals in terms of batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS was 2011. And that year still compared well against Hall of Famers and their career totals. A look:
• Batting Average, .299: 85 HOFers have higher career average. This would be wedged between Mickey Mantle (.298) and Roberto Alomar (.300).
• On-Base Percentage, .366: 98 HOFers have higher career OBP. This would tie with Pee Wee Reese, .366.
• Slugging Percentage, .541: Only 19 HOFers have a higher career SLG. This would put him between Chuck Klein (.543) and Jeff Bagwell (.540).
• OPS, .907: Only 33 HOFers have a higher career number. Ken Griffey Jr. is at .907.
To be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot distributed to eligible members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), a player must have been in the majors for at least 10 years. When Pujols left the Cardinals for free-agent riches out West, he already had that decade in the majors. If it were such a thing, he would have won the Decade Triple Crown by leading the National League in average, RBIs, and home runs from 2001-2010. At the time he departed St. Louis, he had a slash line of .328/.420/.617 and a 1.037 OPS.
Only four players in the Hall could match those rates.
- Ted Williams .344/.482/.634, 1.116
- Babe Ruth .342/.474/.690, 1.164
- Lou Gehrig .340/.447/.632, 1.080
- Jimmie Foxx .325/.428/.609, 1.038
Expand the group to include the Hall of Famers with OPS greater than 1.000 and Pujols would have edged Rogers Hornsby (1.010) and Hank Greenberg (1.017).
Like Pujols, Hornsby won a Decade Triple Crown (if that was such a thing), but both of his actual Triple Crowns came with the Cardinals. He spent more time with the Cardinals than he did his other four teams combined. Of his 23 years in the majors, 18 of them were with a team in St. Louis. From 1920 to 1925, he led the National League every year – every. year. – in average, OBP, slugging, and OPS. And he did that while playing for the Cardinals. That’s an indelible mark.
True to the cap he wore in so many pictures, his plaque does not have a logo.
When Hornsby was inducted into the Hall, in 1942, he was still kicking around baseball as a coach, manager, and sometimes player. He was in the Texas League that year, with the Vera Cruz Blues the next, and would broadcast Cubs games a few years later. A decade after his induction, he was back in St. Louis, as manager of the Browns. It was a brief stint.
There are about 90 plaques without a logo on the hat, and they range from Yogi Berra – whose plaque has a profile engraving, so no NY – to Catfish Hunter, Johnny Mize to Nap Lajoie. From Tinker to Evers to Chance, only one Cubs logo from the trio and, fittingly, Chance has it.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher who secured the Cardinals’ first title in 1926, has a blank cap, though The New York Times suggests he “appears to be wearing a Cardinals-style cap that did not have a logo during his four seasons with the team.” Most recently, Atlanta and Cubs ace Greg Maddux joined that group, saying in a statement that it was “impossible for me to choose one of those teams.”
That same induction class featured Tony La Russa, Pujols’ first manager and a mentor. Two years removed from retiring the day after winning the 2011 World Series, La Russa decided not to join the flock of Cardinals in the Hall and, weighing STL vs. A’s vs. SOX, echoed Maddux: “It’s the totality of the success of each of those three teams that led me to Cooperstown, so I am choosing to feature a logo so that fans of all clubs can celebrate this honor with me.”
Pujols’ feats have often been compared to Hornsby.
The manager with whom he had the most success was La Russa.
Both spent the majority of their careers with Cardinals.
Both had standout years, titles, awards, monumental moments as Cardinals.
Both have blank caps.
Pujols will have a red jacket years before he has a plaque in Cooperstown, but when it comes time to formalize that place in history, that bronze likeness for the ages, he’ll do so as a Cardinal great, possibly an Angels employee, and on his cap …
“It always starts with a conversation,” Jeff Idelson, the president of the Hall of Fame told The New York Times in 2014. “We work with them with an eye toward 50 years from now, so that a casual visitor won’t look at their plaques, scratch their heads and say, ‘Huh?’ (Maddux and La Russa) had trouble discerning who they belong to, and ultimately, they decided they belong to everybody.”
But no one.