Albert Pujols almost certainly had some reservations about leaving the only organization he ever knew when he signed his mega free-agent deal with the Angels.
But I wonder if he could have ever imagined that his first month of play in a new uniform could possibly go this badly.
I’m not talking about the .205 batting average with no home runs and five RBIs as much as I am referring to the fact that he turned himself from one of the most beloved players in St. Louis baseball history to probably the most universally hated guys in all of the major leagues.
Pujols was used to being booed by fans of Cardinals rivals Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago and Houston. But his reception was generally pretty warm in less combative places where fans were thrilled to have a chance to see baseball’s greatest player.
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Now his monster contract seems to have diverted fans’ focus from his on the field accomplishments to his overstuffed bank account. He’s like a professional wrestling heel, serving as a magnet for the cat calls, heckles and Bronx cheers from every opposing fan in the stands. He has been booed heartily everywhere the Angels have played on the road this season.
Don’t tell me it isn’t getting to him. Pujols actually thought that Cardinals fans would still adore him when he turned his back on them and left. He was hurt and shocked to learn otherwise, eventually referring to Redbirds rooters who didn’t understand why St. Louis’ $200 million contract offer wasn’t good enough as “haters.”
In St. Louis, Pujols grew accustomed to long standing ovations from fans when he reached milestones like his 2,000th hit. Cardinals fans made a point to ask Pujols to stay with a lengthy ovation during his last 2011 regular season game in St. Louis and they actually shocked him with their enthusiasm on a national stage during the 2009 All-Star game at Busch Stadium when he could be seen to mouth the word “wow” on television.
I’m sure that when Albert was made to feel like “family” by Anaheim owner Arte Moreno that he never imagined he’d be greeted by Angels fans with a smattering of boos when he walked to the plate in the first week of May.
It’s the worst nightmare scenario of signing a quarter-billion contract come true. Southern California fans couldn’t care less about Pujols’ two World Series rings earned with the Cardinals or his .327 career batting average and 455 home runs hit through the 2011 season. They want him to produce like a $240 million player right now.
Sure, Pujols is still cashing those big checks. But I have to wonder what it does to the psyche of a guy who is used to being universally adored and respected to head to the bank with a check for every game that is worth more than triple what the average American family makes in a year while he is stinking it up.
Do I think Pujols won’t get up off the floor and hit a bunch of homers and push for the .300 mark before the end of this season? Of course not. But if he hits .280 with 25 homers, I’m pretty sure the Anaheim fans are going to be pretty bitterly disappointed. And they’re probably still going to grumble and boo every time he hits a ground ball to short with runners on base.
He was a legend in St. Louis. A man among men. And now Pujols has made himself a punchline. I hope money makes him happy.