St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals got the best of Albert Pujols. It seems wrong that the Angels get his milestones.

Any day now, the Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols will join the exclusive 3,000-hit club.
Any day now, the Los Angeles Angels' Albert Pujols will join the exclusive 3,000-hit club. AP file

Any day now, Albert Pujols will join the exclusive 3,000-hit club, the anticipation of which has taken my thoughts back to that tense offseason of 2012.

Remember?

St. Louis spent two months trying to handicap what chances existed that Pujols would sign a contract to make him a Cardinal for life.

Everyone knew the money would be obscene and that, at some point, its term would prove the law of diminishing returns. But that all was rationalized by the promise of witnessing another legend cement his place in baseball history wearing the Birds on the Bat.

Records would fall, milestones would be met, followed by a glorious farewell tour of major-league parks. Then the red blazer, his speech in Cooperstown and — dare I say it? — a monument to The Machine right next to the statue of The Man at the gates of Busch Stadium III, the House That Albert Built.

On some convoluted moral level, extending Pujols a historic contract felt like the right thing to do for the franchise and its fans.

Somehow, it all came undone and a great baseball city was robbed of its chance to venerate Pujols as one of its legends.

Other suitors entered the market. Huge new deals to the likes of Ryan Howard, Joe Mauer, and Mark Teixeira elevated the salary floor for Pujols, who was still the best hitter in the game.

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria swooped in with a thinly-veiled plan to buy a championship that included high salaries to several of the game's biggest names with Pujols as his centerpiece. Pujols bristled at Loria's refusal to include a no-trade guarantee.

Still, it heightened the demand for Pujols, who had by that point been "insulted" by the Cardinals' offer of a five-year deal. The best the Cardinals eventually could do was a measly $210 million over 10 years with the inconvenience of deferred money.

St. Louis rolled out of bed on a Thursday morning to learn that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had won the prize. Owner Arte Moreno overwhelmed the competition with a 10-year deal so loaded with incentives its value could top $280 million.

That makes no mention of the "personal service" clause that not only ties Pujols to the Angels for 10 years beyond his retirement, but deeply wounded those hopeful St. Louis fans who wanted to make him an icon.

The post-Pujols malaise didn't last long.

Carlos Beltran was signed to assume his place in the lineup between the two Matts — Carpenter and Holliday. The Cardinals won 101 games in 2013 and were back in the World Series for the third time in seven years.

Almost as gratifying for more embittered fans, Pujols and those high-priced Angels had to watch it all on television — they finished third in the American League West, six games below .500.

That's pretty much been the story since the offseason of 2012.

The Cardinals have appeared in three MLB postseasons, winning 14 games along the way. The Angels have been to the playoffs once and were swept in the divisional series.

Pujols' contract, meanwhile, has become Arte's Great Albatross of Anaheim.

His slash line through 11 seasons in St. Louis: .328/.420/.617.

His slash line through a month into his seventh year in LA: .262/.317/.458. The decline hit bottom last year when Pujols' Wins Above Replacement score was minus-1.99, thus earning him the dubious title of "Worst Player in Baseball."

After this season, there remain three more years on his contract for which the Angels will owe him $87 million.

Slightly more than 3 million fans file through the turnstiles at Angels Stadium annually to witness this sad decline. In return, they're getting their money's worth in milestones.

They've already seen home runs No. 500 and No. 600. Hit No. 3,000 is imminent, which will make him just the fourth player to have achieved that milestone in addition to hitting 600 homers.

If Pujols makes it to 700 home runs before The Albatross expires full term, only he and Henry Aaron will have achieved that slugging achievement in tandem with 3,000 career hits.

Fifty years from now, the short list of baseball's all-time greatest hitters will still include Pujols. He has earned his red blazer and maybe even one of the smaller statues at the northwest corner of Busch III.

That doesn't change these two incontrovertible truths: 1) St. Louis got the best of Albert Pujols by a wide margin and 2) that horrible contract would be every bit the albatross for the Cardinals and their payroll.

Nevertheless, I wonder if, deep down, Cardinals fans still harbor the sense that they were robbed of Pujols' milestone moments because, in that dramatic offseason of 2012, the business of baseball trumped its traditions.

I also wonder if any part of Pujols feels the same.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or at 618-239-2540.
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