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Albert Pujols arrives, unsigned but not unready

Spring training is here! Pitchers and catchers have reported to camps in Arizona and Florida, some teams seem relatively set except for a few positions, other teams will have multiple battles for jobs on the 25-man roster.
No place, however, got the media attention that the St. Louis Cardinals’ camp in Jupiter FL did, especially on Wednesday when superstar Albert Pujols arrived, no contract extension agreement at hand, and no talks scheduled before season’s end. Many observers, including yours truly, never thought it would get to this.

Keep in mind this was supposed to be a glorious week for Cardinals’ fans as Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Stan is in his 90’s now and he is getting frail but there he was with his ever-present smile. I feel privileged to have seen Stan play, even though near the end of his career. He would pepper the wall in right-field at old Connie Mack Stadium, and when he wasn’t hitting balls off the wall, he was hitting them over it.

Today Albert Pujols is known as “El Hombre”, but Albert, a classy guy, rejects the title in favor of his senior Cardinals’ icon. As details of the so-far futile negotiations come out, it seems appalling that the Cardinals offered so little to their superstar who is widely regarded as the best player in the game today. “Appalling” is a relative term, of course, since the Cardinals reportedly offered Albert somewhere around $200 million for 9 years. Break it down and it’s somewhere around $21 million per year, which would make Albert the 10th or so highest paid player. It’s not hard to see that Albert rejected the offer and may even have felt insulted by it.

Remember Albert signed a very club-friendly 7-year, $100 million contract six years ago and has rewarded the Cardinals and their fans with statistics that put him in very, very select even lonely territory. Make no mistake about it, Pujols has had a Hall of Fame-worthy career already, achieving things even the greatest players enshrined did not. Rookie of the Year, three-time MVP, six-time Silver Slugger, twice a Gold Glover and a nine-time All-Star: he is a certain first ballot choice, even if he never picks up a bat again. It’s just that simple.

This is not meant to be a hagiography, but some fans may feel that Albert is being “greedy”. Tom Verducci reports that one thing Albert does with his wealth is to fly doctors and dentists to the Dominican Republic where they staff free clinics for poor children, who otherwise might receive no medical care whatsoever. His charitable works in and around St. Louis are also noteworthy. This strikes me as being about pride, not greed.

From the Cardinals’ perspective, clearly they are laboring under certain assumptions: they have a mid-market team mind-set, uncomfortable enough with a payroll in the $100 million range let alone $130; they fear tying up too much payroll with just a few players; and it is an actuarial certainty that Pujols over his next ten years will not match his previous ten years. So in their minds they made a “reasonable” offer.

In his immortal chronicle of Ted Williams’ last game “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, the great John Updike wrote, “Gods do not answer fan-mail.” Similarly, Gods do not accept burnt offerings that are not well-done.

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