I was fascinated to hear former St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols on the radio yesterday as I made my afternoon commute.
Albert has never been very open with the media, usually measuring out the comments he made in predictable and generic sound bites. But on Monday it was different. It was as if an old college buddy you hadn’t heard from in 20 years was suddenly on the phone. Past disagreements were forgotten in favor of reminiscing about the good times. Albert also mentioned that he’s been disappointed that Major League Baseball schedulers hadn’t put a game between his current team and former club on the Busch Stadium calendar.
According to the folks at ESPN Radio, it was Pujols who called them asking to be on the St. Louis airwaves, not the other way around.
Albert seemed to want to reach out with an olive branch to St. Louis fans, saying that he was glad that he hit more than half of his 601 career homers in a Cardinals uniform and justifying the decision to leave by mentioning that his body has forced him to be an American League player at this point (whether he likes it or not) by limiting him to being a designated hitter. While I think most of us have gotten over the bitterness created when Pujols, who professed that he would take less money to be a Redbird for life, took a higher bid to go play for the Anaheim Angels and complained about a perceived lack of respect as he walked out the door.
I have always hoped that Pujols could come back into the St. Louis fold in one way or another, a prospect made difficult by the lengthy personal services contracted he inked with the Halos that will extend well beyond his playing days. Still, we can dream. Apparently, he dreams about that, too.
Anyway, congratulations to Pujols for becoming a member of the elite club of major league players who have eclipsed 600 home runs. I just hope he doesn’t ruin all of other career statistics by stretching out his career in effort to climb the homer list.
When Pujols left St. Louis, he was a career .328 hitter with a lifetime .420 on base percentage. Since he reported to the Angels, he has been a .264 hitter with a .322 on base percentage. This year he is hitting only .237 with a .289 on base percentage. The result, Albert’s career batting average has plummeted to .307 and his on base percentage stands at .390. If he continues to struggle along as he is struggling now, Pujols could be down to about .304 by the end of the season and, as early as next year, could drop below the .300 mark.
That would be terribly sad for a guy who arguably had the best first 10 years of his career of any slugger in MLB history. He was a sure-fire Hall of Famer before he left St. Louis. But those numbers on Cooperstown plaques are forever. I always remember Mickey Mantle saying that it brought him to tears when he realized that he’d dragged his career batting average down to .298 by hanging on too long.
But what can Albert do? He’s the one who wanted a longer contract than the Cardinals were willing to offer. He’s the one who accepted a slightly back loaded deal from the Angels. He makes $26 million this year and has $27, $28, $29 and $30 million coming over the next four seasons from 2018-21. That’s a lot of scratch to walk away from if Pujols decides he’s had enough.
Maybe something can be worked out where the Angels buy him out for a portion of his remaining contract and tear up his post-career agreement, freeing Pujols to retire and come back into the Cardinals family. If he wanted to pass on his knowledge of the game to the next generation of players, Albert might make an awesome coach some day. It might sound far-fetched. But Angels owner Arte Moreno’s efforts to buy Pujols’ legacy were ill-conceived. This isn’t Tony La Russa refusing to have a logo of one of his teams on his Cooperstown plaque because he had a significant career with the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. If you divided Albert’s career in half, the Cardinals portion is good enough for the Hall of Fame. The Angels portion is decidedly not. Los Angeles can have their pathetic Rams. But Pujols will always belong to St. Louis.