For immediate release: Albert Pujols is no longer with the Cardinals. Over the winter, he signed a blockbuster 10 year contract with the
California Anaheim Los Angeles errr Angels. According to the national media, that was the only story so far in the 2012 regular season. Forget that Jared Weaver pitched a gem of a game, the St. Louis Cardinals are not following the script and have won their first two games convincingly, Kyle Lohse (yes, that Kyle Lohse) took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first start. Albert Pujols was not a factor in any of these events, yet the national media is obsessive about analyzing the Pujols situation from every possible angle. I will draw the line if somebody produces his most recent colonoscopy film – that is not must see TV.
PostPujols depression is a real condition, and there are a few things that everybody needs to understand about it.
Albert Pujols is Human
As much as we like to think otherwise, and some of his baseball statistics suggest it might not be true, Albert Pujols is a person. In a paying profession. In a system that rewards the best of the best with extremely lucrative contracts. At the expense of small market franchises.
That is the world we live in, and pretending that it isn’t so will not change it.
When comparing Pujols to other franchise players in St. Louis history (Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial), we must understand that most of them played in a different era. Gibson and Musial played their entire career under the reserve clause, meaning that they had little to say about where they played. It was much easier to keep franchise players back then, than it is today.
In Bob Gibson’s latest book, 60ft 6in, the Cardinal legend makes a disturbing confession when talking about steroids. He said that he was glad they weren’t around when he played, because he might have been tempted to use them. While that might shock some, it just points out that he too, was human. Don’t tell that to the National League hitters that faced him in 1968, but it is true. It also means that he might have done exactly what Albert Pujols did, if given the opportunity.
Ozzie Smith did play during the beginning of the free agency era, and signed an enormous contract in April 1985. At the time, sportswriters questioned the wisdom of signing Smith to the same kind of money that Mike Schmidt was receiving. Two NL Pennants later, it seemed like it was money well spent – or was it ? That big contract handicapped the Cardinals following the passing of Gussie Busch and the fiscally conservative ownership group (Fred Kuhlmann) couldn’t (or didn’t) surround Smith with enough talent to win.
Stan Musial might be a bit different story. We don’t know whether or not Musial would have taken advantage of free agency to land the same kind of deal as Albert Pujols, because he never had the chance. His continued involvement in the franchise and local community, along with taking a pay cut after a poor (by his standards) season – at his insistence – suggests that Mr. Musial might not have chased the last possible dollar. It is just further evidence of something we already know, Stan Musial is the exception, and not the rule. And that’s why Stan is, and shall always be, “The Man”.
I think we’ve known it all along, Albert Pujols and Stan Musial are two different people. The come from two different eras, have vastly different things driving them, and expecting the two to follow the same path is our mistake, not either of theirs.
Grieving is not Hating
Another important aspect is understanding what is going through the minds of Cardinals fans, who have watched a kid from Kansas City come out of nowhere, and become the greatest player of his generation. And he did it right in front of our eyes.
It has been a long time since St. Louis has had that kind of player. And you will have to excuse us for getting used to all of the attention that gave our team. And likewise, you will have to give us some time to get over the fact that that attention will now be placed elsewhere – Southern California and the American League West, to be exact.
Cardinals fans are going to take the Pujols departure in a number of ways. There will be some genuine haters, who think that the fans were somehow let down. To them, let me suggest that we had the privilege of watching the greatest player of his era give a small market team more than a decade of production. When the final chapter is written on the Pujols career, we will discover that his best years were played in front of us, and not in Southern California.
If you want to get mad at Pujols for taking the big contract, understand that most of those years, he was underpaid relative to others performing at, or below his level. So the Cardinals did get some of those years at a discount. They also took a big risk when they signed him to his $100M contract. With three NL Pennants, 2 World Series titles – I think that worked out nicely for both sides.
Finally, to the haters, nothing that Albert does, or doesn’t do, will have much of an impact on the Cardinals. He can be a big help to an organization that has always played second chair to one of the games greatest franchises, the Dodgers. If he succeeds, it will hurt the Dodgers or Padres, but not St. Louis. Even the concern that Yadier Molina might go running after his long lost bromance partner totally fell apart when he signed a contract extension, keeping him in St. Louis.
So there is no reason to hate Albert.
What everybody else has to understand is that many Cardinals fans are grieving a bit, and it will take a while for that to pass. Think Colby Rasmus times about a trillion, and you will be close. The sniping at Albert and the Angels is just catharsis – it is not genuine hate. We make fun of an 0-3 opening day debut with his new team, because we remember his .450 or so batting average on opening day. We understand that he is an RBI threat, just by being on the on-deck circle. He changes the outcome of the game, just because he exists. And he has been known to make players around him better.
And we will miss that.
We are Laughing at You
When you hear Cardinals fans making snarky comments, they are just that. It is like calling an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend ugly, stupid, or enjoying their misfortune. All that means is that we are still paying attention. If we didn’t care, we would not know that Pujols lined into a double play in his first, popped out to Mike Moustakas in his second, struck out in his third, and walked in his final at-bat. We are still hanging onto memories and wishing things had turned out differently. We still care.
But, the target of all the snarkery is not Albert himself. It is the national sports media, or in some cases, the local media as well. It is also aimed at fans of other clubs that think the St. Louis Cardinals is just Albert Pujols and a bunch of nobodies. Those are the ones we are talking to when we make #PuWho jokes. If you want to shut us up, remember that Matt Holliday won an NL Pennant before he played for St. Louis. Acknowledge that when Kyle Lohse has his command, and can hit his spots, he can beat any team in either league. Learn the names, Daniel Descalso, Lance Lynn, Allen Craig and Jon Jay. And Matt Adams.
The Cardinals Will Be Just Fine
The last part will play itself out over the next few months. There are many that suggest the Cardinals cannot win without Albert Pujols in the lineup. There is not a more intimidating player, or ferocious right handed bat anywhere in the game. As a single player, he cannot be replaced.
But – the last time I checked the official rules of major league baseball, a team is comprised of a pitcher and eight additional positions. Pujols represents just 1/9 of the ballclub. Functionally, Carlos Beltran has replaced Pujols in the daily lineup. That just means he’s the new 1/9 of the team. He doesn’t have to be Pujols for the Cardinals to win, he just has to be Carlos Beltran.
Over the course of his eleven year career, Albert Pujols has totaled 88 WAR (wins above replacement). That works out to 8 per year, a staggering number. When healthy, Carlos Beltran is around a 3-4 WAR. Allen Craig was a 3 last year, but only played for 1/3 of a season. David Freese is a 1.8, and played just half a season. No single player will, or at least isn’t likely to, replace that 8 WAR we have been used to from the first base position, but getting rid of a lot of negative WAR players, who saw far too much playing time in recent seasons, will keep the Cardinals a competitive and successful team. It is far too early to draw any conclusions about 2012, but the new lineup looks just as imposing as the one that won the World Series last year, perhaps even a bit better.
That’s the message I want to deliver to the single syllable sound bite driven sports media. The Cardinals have always been more than just Albert Pujols. It doesn’t matter that you base your entire narrative around a false premise, the fact remains that the Cardinals won championships long before Albert was a Cardinal, and they will (hopefully) win more now that he is gone. It will take a team effort, but it always has – baseball is a team game. At the end of the day, that is the real key to the Cardinals franchise – it has never been about one player, it has always been the team. That doesn’t always make for great headlines (Kyle Lohse pitching six no-hit innings to open the Marlins new stadium), but that is the Cardinals Way. Understand that, and you will understand us.
And then, maybe, we can all get along.
Until then, it is all good. Baseball is back. The Cardinals are playing well. We like our new manager. And it is so good to see Adam Wainwright back on the mound.