My friend Will Leitch, the founding editor of Deadspin.com and a contributing editor at New York magazine, absolutely adores the Cardinals. On the Fan-O-Meter, he's somewhere between delirious and deranged. His annual visits to Busch Stadium aren't road trips; they're pilgrimages. According to an unconfirmed and irresponsible rumor, Leitch may have walked down the aisle with his wife to the tune of the Budweiser march, "Here Comes the King" as they completed their wedding ceremony.
As you might imagine, Leitch isn't having an easy time with the Albert Pujols contract crisis. He's taken to Twitter to provide daily, um, briefings. Here's a recent entry: "Pujols Contract Countdown Status Update: 5 Days. Dehydration. Irritable bowels. Red blotches on neck. Mania."
And Leitch provides a link to a website, www.albertcountdown.com. (Take a look. The site was created by St. Louisan Matt Sebek, and it's funny.)
I don't think Leitch really is breaking out in hives over Pujols, but his state of mind certainly could be described as nervous. And I mention Leitch because his tweets, while intentionally overstated for desired effect, surely represent the high anxiety that's gripping Cardinal Nation.
The fever will only intensify by Wednesday, when Pujols is expected to walk into the team's spring-training camp in Jupiter, Fla. At that point if there's no deal, then the Pujols-imposed deadline kicks in and negotiations will be terminated for the season. On the surface it's menacing. It seems so...drop-dead final.
This is serious business to Pujols and the Cardinals. Baseball commerce that could end in a contract between $250 million or $300 million — or a divorce that will leave both sides (and the fans) with scars.
Fans are freaking out about this. They're choosing sides. They're ripping Pujols for being greedy and insincere or slamming team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. for being a cheap procrastinator.
And we thought last spring's Mark McGwire Forgiveness Tour was a firestorm? That was wiffle ball compared to this full-on angst over Pujols. And Pujols' belief that he needed to put a deadline in place to eliminate distractions is officially laughable. There's no chance of that. The notion is preposterous.
During a slow news week, with nothing going on before the opening of spring training, the national baseball media jumped on the Pujols story the way he pounced on the Brad Lidge slider in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. The press squeezed hard for needed material. The story was right on time. A batting-practice fastball to be deposited into the bleachers for an easy home-run of a headline. And the ensuing fan hysteria bordered on the comical.
I did not come to roil your blood by ratcheting up the Pujols Panic. I'm actually going to go reverse Chicken Little here and suggest that we take a deep breath and calm down. That includes the media. I know it seems as though fans and pundits have more urgency than Cardinals' management to make a deal happen. And yeah, that's frustrating.
If the Cardinals are guilty of slow-playing this, it's only because a deal of this magnitude is difficult and complex. Pujols and his agent, Dan Lozano, aren't going to accept the first pitch offered. DeWitt and general manager John Mozeliak aren't going to roll over and capitulate to Lozano's every demand. This is a process. Even at this seemingly late date, it isn't feasible to expect a quick resolution.
And this deadline essentially is bogus.
There's no need to have a 19th nervous breakdown over it.
If the deadline passes without a contract in No. 5's hands, there's no legitimate reason to assume it means the likely ending of the Pujols-Cardinals union. It doesn't mean that all hope is lost. It doesn't mean Pujols is going to bolt as a free agent after the season and jump to the enemy Chicago Cubs.
This spring-training deadline is merely the first checkpoint.
That's all. Nothing more.
Seriously now: If Mozeliak forwards a meaningful contract proposal to Lozano four weeks from now, or four months from now, do you really believe Lozano and client will refuse to look it over? Of course not. Unless they're complete frauds, they'll consider any or all offers from the Cardinals.
I say that based on Pujols' own words through the years. How many times has Pujols said he wants to be a Cardinal for life? How many times has Albert evoked the name of Stan Musial as his ideal of what a player, and a career, should be? Well, shouldn't Albert's previous statements account for something, or was it just junk talk?
Deadline or no deadline, if the Cardinals come up with a great offer during the middle of the 2011 season, how could Pujols decline it with a clear conscience? Even if he enters free agency, how could Pujols be so cold-hearted to the loyal fans of this town by refusing to give the Cardinals the final shot at signing him? Unless the Cardinals announce that they're done negotiating with Pujols, I don't see why anyone from the Pujols camp would have the gall or the absence of intelligence to eliminate the Cardinals as a candidate.
After all of the seemingly genuine Musial tributes and passionate Cardinal-for-life declarations, Pujols would go down as one of the biggest phonies in sports history if he slaps away a worthy Cardinals offer -- no matter when it is presented.
If Pujols wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball history, that's fine. He's earned it.
And let me say it one more time for the short-attention-span crowd: I hope Pujols gets a dream deal. He's been a bargain for the Cardinals for 10 years. He warrants top dollar. I don't blame him at all for aiming high in this deal.
But my opinion doesn't matter; I'm not doing the contract. And just because Pujols may want to set an MLB contract record, it doesn't mean the Cardinals will give it to him. Chances are they'll come close, and be in the ballpark. And if they are, then what will Pujols decide?
I wish Pujols would tell us what he really wants to be: No. 1 on the contract rankings, or No. 1 in the hearts of Cardinals fans? Does he want to be a self-absorbed mercenary such as Alex Rodriguez or a baseball saint such as Musial?
Well, what will it be?
Does Pujols walk with A-Rod or Stan the Man?
Let me explain, if I can. I don't know what Pujols is asking for and I don't know what he'd settle for, but let's suppose the Cardinals make a sensational offer — but not the best offer. Let's say the Cardinals make the second-best offer, a close second, in the event that Pujols reaches free agency.
Does Pujols really snub the Cardinals and walk away?
Frankly, I'd be surprised if that happens. Pujols is a baseball god in St. Louis. He runs the show. He can do what he wants here. He's close to his wife's family, and his family, in Kansas City. He can live comfortably without a bunch of meddling reporters crowding his space all of the time. He has a comfortable routine, and privacy, and makes his own rules. He has the kind of peace of mind that helps him perform to maximum levels. And I'd imagine that's worth something.
Does Pujols really want to start all over again, in a new town with a new team? Does he want the added stress? Does he want to have to try and fit his personality into a clubhouse that might have an entirely different vibe than the workspace he controls in St. Louis?
Suppose his new manager with the new team enforces the rules and makes Pujols run out ground balls or pay attention to the third-base coach? If the money is close, then what exactly would be the point of Pujols going for the extra loot and disrupting a blissful existence that's helped him thrive, prosper and reach the top of his profession?
So that's why Lozano and Pujols will be listening, deadline or not. They aren't stupid. These are smart people. They understand these things. They certainly are aware of the risk of putting personal happiness on the line for the sake of a few million dollars or contract bragging rights.
Baseball is such a romantic, tradition-rich sport. By staying, Pujols would reach a higher level of respect and acclaim if he plays every game of his career in a Cardinals uniform. That distinction would put him there with the Musials and Bob Gibsons and put him in an increasingly rare category. He'd be among those that stay true to their roots and appreciate what they have. We cherish those athletes the most. (Recent examples: Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore, Tony Gwynn in San Diego.)
And Pujols is the kind of man who wants us to believe he's different. That he stands for the right things. That he's honorable. That he's clean and doesn't use steroids. That he cares about the community, afflicted children, and those who endure hardship. That he's a sincere man of God. That he's been put on this earth to use baseball as a platform to fulfill a higher purpose.
All of that makes him worthy of our admiration … unless, of course, he turns out to be just another greedhead motivated to chase every last dollar in some egomaniacal race to displace A-Rod at No. 1 on the contract power ratings.
Really, I don't think Pujols is like that. That's why the deadline means very little. If he's the man we think he is, Pujols will give the Cardinals a chance — every last chance — to get this done.