St. Louis Cardinals

Pujols thumbs nose at Cards history

Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 9, 2011.

Turns out he didn't want to be Stan Musial after all.

Albert Pujols is leaving town, and he's leaving his Cardinals' legacy in tatters, for a mind-boggling, budget-busting deal that puts a halo on his head.

Everywhere, that is, except in St. Louis - and all points elsewhere with fans who care about Cardinals baseball.

Tough not to be angry about this if you're a Cardinal fan, steeped in the history of this hallowed franchise. Difficult not to sit in disbelief as the news unfolded Thursday. Impossible not to wonder at Albert's Bottom-Dollar-Is-All-That-Matters mindset.

All that pious talk about wanting to be a Cardinal forever? Gone the instant the Angels offered him a quarter of a billion dollars.

Who can imagine how much money that is? Or how long 10 years is, inside baseball and out?

We'll all be exactly one decade older (you, too, Albert) by the time he is paid to play his last game as a Angel. We'll have three more presidential elections, and have three more leap years. And children in first grade today will have their drivers licenses.

What's more, we'll have 10 World Series and 10 opening days and 10 pennant races. None of them with Pujols wearing No. 5 and the Birds on the Bat.

Oddly enough, when the news came Thursday morning I thought about my grandkids to come, the ones who won't get to see Albert riding on a golf cart on the field at Busch Stadium years from now, introduced alongside the great Cardinals who have graced this franchise for decades.

It won't happen, now that Pujols has put a dividing line directly down the middle of his Hall of Fame career: Half as a Cardinal, half as an Angel.

Someday, it will be hard to look at that Cooperstown bust if it is topped with a cap that has an "A" on it, instead of "StL."

For all the angst we feel, though, it's likely the Cardinals are better off, perhaps not in the short term but as Albert's deal stretches out to 2021. It doesn't take a baseball expert to wonder how his production will wane - even if he becomes the Angels' designated hitter - as he ages.

That's 1,620 baseball games for Pujols in an Anaheim jersey, and 1,620 games for the Cardinals to boost their baseball fortunes with other players.

As is being written elsewhere today, the Cardinals now have $22 million a year to pay other players to fill holes in their roster. For 2012, that could mean a stronger middle infield and leadoff hitter, another outfielder, a shored-up rotation, and maybe a relief pitcher or two.

Clearly, the Cardinals would be better in 2012 if they had Albert Pujols. But can you say that in 2015? Or 2019? Or 2021?

That's why the Cardinals were wise, as 2011 wound down, to keep Lance Berkman as a fallback first baseman, to get Chris Carpenter back in the fold, and to pick up the option on an Adam Wainwright ready to rejoin the rotation.

Does anybody think, even without Albert, that this Cardinals team won't be the favorite to win the National League Central next year?

And while ticket sales may take a hit - but maybe not: World Series titles have a way of putting fans in the seats - I think we'll see growing resentment in the wake of Albert's departure.

I guarantee you, this town does not take treachery lightly. And whether you think what Albert did was treachery, a large number of fans will believe it to be so.

How else to characterize Albert thumbing his nose at the rich tradition he supposedly embraced here?

Reverence for Redbird history? Gone.

Allegiance to the team that gave him his start and let him be great? Dissolved.

Affection for the fans cheering his every move? Evaporated.

All that's left: Imagining what might have been if Albert had stayed a Cardinal. Instead it is nothing short of this: So long, Stan. See ya, Gibby. Later, Lou. Ozzie, it's been real.

Real fun, that is, til now - when Pujols joins all the other disaffected players who left St. Louis thinking they'd find a better baseball situation somewhere else.

I don't have enough fingers on both hands to list all the Cardinals I know who left St. Louis and later regretted it, but let's start with this short list: Vince Coleman, Jack Clark, Andy Benes, even Willie McGee and lesser lights like Fernando Vina and Jeff Suppan.

Some of those guys departed for their only chance at free-agent money. Others left of the team's accord.

Neither instance is the case with Pujols, who was courted (some say, unwisely) by the Cardinals before he left $220 million on the table to move to Disneyland.

Hope his kids like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. But the fans here are the ones left with queasy stomachs.

Joe Ostermeier, one of the official scorers at the World Series this year, is chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He covered the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.