There used to be a lot of debate around these parts as to whether St. Louis Cardinals fans would boo, remain indifferent or offer a standing ovation should Albert Pujols return to play at Busch Stadium as an opposing player.
With Pujols on the verge of collecting major-league hit number 3,000 (2,073 with St. Louis and 926 with the Los Angeles Angels, it finally seems clear that the vast majority of Redbirds rooters have forgiven and forgotten the slugger’s jarring exit from St. Louis when he accepted a 10-year contract from the Angels that included a 10-year personal services contract tagged on the end. That pact, which he signed after pledging for years that it “wasn’t about the money” and after he and his wife complained that he was “insulted” by a lucrative offer from the Cardinals to keep him here for the rest of his career, would prevent Pujols from associating with the team where he made his name for two decades.
But why now?
When the Halos signed Pujols he was one of the best players in baseball. In fact, he arguably had the most successful first 10 years of a major-league career in the history of the game. He was a .328 hitter with the Cardinals and is a .261 hitter since he moved on to play ball in California. There is no doubt that the Angels paid Pujols to finish his lengthy journey up the MLB record books. He hit his 500th home run with Anaheim. Then his 600th. Currently at 620 homers, 445 with the Cardinals and 175 with the Angels, it’s conceivable if he plays out his contract that he could become only the third player in baseball history to eclipse 700 homers — while wearing an Angels uniform. This weekend he’ll become the 32nd player in MLB history to collect 3,000 hits.
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I think, when this deal happened in the winter of 2011-12, a lot of St. Louis fans were irritated by the fact the Angels tried to buy Pujols’ legacy — and that Albert was willing to sell it. But a lot of water has flowed under that bridge during the course of the last five years. So maybe it’s not just time that made the wounds of Albert’s departure heal.
First, the elephant in the room is the fact that the contract the Angels handed Pujols is one of the worst in baseball history. Despite his dwindling impact, Anaheim still owes Pujols $114 million for this season and three more after it. For the $126 million Albert has been paid by the Halos so far, he has managed but one All-Star Game appearance (compared to nine in St. Louis.) So, as has been often said on local sports radio, the Birds dodged the bullet when they avoided temptation to up their offer to keep Albert. I doubt they would have had to close Busch Stadium had St. Louis signed Pujols to this same deal. But there is no doubt we’d hear every winter that the front office couldn’t afford to do this or that because of Albert’s contract.
Second, I think it’s helped a lot to see Pujols’ predicted decline become a reality. That’s not a knock at him. Just a cold hard fact because, as Albert said “it’s just business.” If Pujols went to the Angels and won three more MVP awards and a couple World Series trophies, this would be hard to swallow. His swooning statistics have been the evidence that the Cardinals made the right — if not sentimentally satisfying — decision on this deal.
Finally, I believe the reason Albert’s once controversial status in St. Louis has been rehabilitated is because of a fellow by the name of Enos Stanley Kroenke. You remember him, right? He’s the guy named after St. Louis Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial who used to watch the St. Louis Rams sell out their stadium every week when they actually TRIED to win, who stood in front of National Football League owners and, presumably with a straight face, said St. Louis is a lousy sports town that didn’t have the capacity to support a major-league franchise. When you’re a guy who gives and gives to charity whose primary sin is that you broke the hearts of your fans by going to play elsewhere, it doesn’t stack up to a guy who is a billionaire who was born and raised here and a lifelong fan of local sports who decided to trash the town and salt the earth because he was offended people here tried to build him a new, state of the art football stadium so he shredded the place to justify a move to a bigger market where he could make even more money.