Keeping Pujols: Is it in Cards?

Invaluable star may prove too costly for St. Louis

December 12, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Tony La Russa must feel spoiled at times. He has had a decade to benefit from what he calls "the blessing of Albert."

But all good things come to an end and that could be the case for Albert Pujols and the Cardinals after 2011. The top end of baseball's flesh market appears to be expanding upward again and, unless Pujols really will give the Cardinals a hometown discount as he has hinted at in the past, it may be impossible for a team in baseball's 21st largest television market to hang onto him.

The Cardinals are beginning to express concern for the first time about whether Pujols will fit their budget once the eight-year deal he signed before 2004 ends at the end of the season.

Forget the .331 lifetime average and yearly norms of 42 home runs and 128 RBIs, La Russa believes Pujols also would be missed because of his presence and his humility.

"… Albert has kept it so old-fashionably right," La Russa said during the winter meetings. "He plays the game for his team to win: defense, baserunning, hitting. There isn't anything about his game that's chasing stats. At the end of the day he looks, 'Oh, I was 2-for-4 with two RBIs.' He doesn't go out there looking for this or that.

"The other thing that is amazing about him, and I say amazing because he has become as big a star as we have in the game, the type of teammate he is. … (When) he has an 0-for-4, close game, he's on the top step cheering for his teammates. He's not saying, 'Oh, I'm having a bad day.' … He's so open and he's just perfect. … Off the field as well."

La Russa revealed Pujols once went to Cardinals officials and asked them to stop referring to him as El Hombre out of respect for franchise icon Stan Musial, who is known as Stan the Man.

"He doesn't like you to call him El Hombre, because Stan is the man," La Russa said. "And he's not Stan the Man. He's Albert. That to me is classic. Albert has his priorities right. He has the sense of perspective on history. He knows Stan. And Albert has had 10 years; Stan had 22 or something, you know. So he's not Stan yet. He's on his way though."

Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he wants to get Pujols signed to a contract extension "sooner than later." But the team has postponed the actual talks like a trip to the dentist's office.

The Cardinals' only really hope to keep Pujols, it seems, is if he has been serious when he hinted through the years that happiness was more important than money, that he would give St. Louis a hometown discount because he likes playing there.

Just last spring, some people around the Cardinals threw around hypothetical contract extensions that would have paid Pujols less than $20 million a year. That's not going to happen.

With Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard signing an extension that pays him $25 million a year and the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez on a 10-year, $275 million contract he signed when he was 32, should anyone not expect Pujols to become the first $300 million player?

At some point, it is going to matter that St. Louis is only baseball's 21st largest television market. The Cardinals are a well-run, incredibly popular franchise, but can they keep anyone happy if they are paying Pujols and Matt Holliday about $50 million apiece, leaving only $60 million or so for the rest of the roster?

"Every team has financial limitations," DeWitt said. "It's a process where you have to evaluate the value of a player given the ability to still field an effective, competitive team."

Contract talks are due to begin after New Year's. It will be interesting to see where they stand when spring training begins.

Two roads to Cooperstown: The late Ron Santo will go before Hall of Fame voters for the 20th time next December, this time on the 10-man "Golden Era" (1947-72) ballot by the latest incarnation of the Veterans Committee. It might be the best shot he ever has had, although it's hardly a sure thing.

The Hall also could recognize Santo as a broadcaster. He has been on the ballot for the Frick Award only once before, placed on it via fan vote in 2005. It will be a travesty if the selection committee doesn't include him on the 10-person ballot next season.

The Frick traditionally honors men who speak more eloquently than Santo. Its first eight winners included some of the greatest broadcasters ever — Mel Allen, Red Barber, Bob Elson, Russ Hodges, Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, Jack Brickhouse and Curt Gowdy. Santo was not that kind of broadcaster.

But pity the guy who winds up seated alongside Pat Hughes next season. About the only guy the Cubs could get to carry on the tradition is Mark Grace, who is ensconced as a TV voice in Arizona. But he probably doesn't hate the Mets enough.

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