I’ll readily admit that I didn’t wish Albert Pujols well when he decided to part with the St. Louis Cardinals and take more money from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
It was going to be tough to watch the greatest Redbirds player since Stan Musial rack up hitting records in Southern California.
But, in his fifth season since he left St. Louis for a 10-year, $240-million pact, anger and resentment has turned to pity.
It’s hard to feel too sorry for a dude who has made more than a third of a million bucks over the past 15 years playing a child’s game. It’s not the cash, but the inevitable march of time that makes me feel bad for both Pujols -- and the rest of us with the misfortune of moving past our primes.
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But most of us don’t have to age gracelessly in front of millions of people.
Three years ago I watched the Cardinals play the Angels in interleague play, hoping with every fiber of my being that Albert wouldn’t get a hit every single time he came to the plate. Now I watch him fly out weakly and hobble to first base and it just makes me sad.
Pujols has to shoulder the weight of the pressure created by his massive contract all while trying to perform like a 26-year-old when he’s in the back half of his 30s.
The results aren’t pretty. Albert is batting an embarrasing .183 through his first 120 at-bats of the 2016 season. His worst year with the Cardinals -- his last -- he batted .312. Although the power hasn’t abandoned him, Pujols has become a one-dimensional hitter. He swings for the fences -- and often misses. with St. Louis he was a career .328 hitter with a .420 on base percentage. He swings earlier now to compensate for a loss of bat speed, chasing more pitches out of the zone, hitting .261 with a .322 on base percentage since joining the Angels.
Pujols hit 40 homers last year -- but had only a .244 batting average. Even then, his slugging percentage shrank to .480 when it was .617 with the Redbirds. He led the league in slugging thrice with St. Louis in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
He still hits his share of homers. But doubles and triples are increasingly rare.
He had 22 two-bag hits in 2015. The only year in St. Louis in which he had less than 33 was his last in which he had 29. He averaged 41 doubles in his Cardinals years. He’s had one triple as a Halo. That happened in 2014.
It’s sad watching Pujols be a shell of his former self and part of me wishes he would live up to his pledge of retiring instead of collecting his massive paycheck as he plays out the sad string.
On the other hand, I don’t want to see Pujols let the Halos off the hook for passing out a ridiculous, decade-long contract to a player in his 30s.
In many ways, the Cardinals are better off without Pujols. After all, they got current contributors Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty with compensatory draft picks acquired by the Pujols defection.
Still, it bothers me as a fan that one of the greatest Cardinals of all-time has ruined his St. Louis legacy. Let’s not forget that Albert signed a personal services contract with Anaheim that ties him to the Angels for up to a decade beyond his playing days.
If you’re excited about the idea of watching Pujols, wearing his Hall of Fame jacket, throw out the first pitch at a future Busch Stadium game, you’re going to have to wait a while. It might be at least 15 years in the future. I suppose Angels owner Arte Moreno could grant Pujols permission to represent his former club. But he signed Albert with the idea of stealing his legacy and putting him into the Hall of Fame as an Angel. So it’s not likely. Unless Albert is released before the end of his deal and the personal services contract never becomes a reality.
Either way, it seems that by the time Pujols makes his triumphant return to St. Louis the pages of our memories will be yellowed and a large portion of the Cardinals fan base will never have seen it in person as he played with the birds and bat across his chest.
By any measure, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end.