JUPITER, Fla. – Over the last week or so, as it became more apparent the chasm between Albert Pujols(notes) and the St. Louis Cardinals in contract negotiations was wide as ever, fans started to take sides. And in a city where team trumps individual, it's no surprise the overwhelming majority of Missourians pledged loyalty to the Cardinals and pox on the star.
The news that Pujols had rejected the Cardinals' earlier offer for an extension did not sit well with his base. He's greedy, they intoned. He's all about money, they griped. He doesn't want to be a Cardinal, they bleated. Pujols as punching bag was just starting, and it was bound to get ugly until something happened Wednesday afternoon.
On the day Pujols cut off negotiations and declared his intention to hit free agency, it became obvious why: The Cardinals' best offer had been between $19 million and $21 million per season, according to Foxsports.com's Ken Rosenthal, which would make Pujols about the 10th-highest paid player in the game.
The best player in baseball. The fourth-best paid at his position.
The reported offer confirmed something gleaned from the press conference Wednesday with Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt and general manager John Mozeliak – they want Pujols to test the free agent market to see if he really can get the megabucks deal he covets – and afforded Pujols an incredible opportunity to purloin the public-relations war he's losing in St. Louis.
What was obvious before is even more now: Pujols needs to seize the narrative by taking the higher road in the face of an insulting offer.
Pujols put out a statement Wednesday night that said a lot of nothing. It's not enough. The plan is for Pujols to show up at spring training Thursday and not discuss his contract situation. If he’s trying to shoot himself in the foot, he might as well do it with a Glock. At least he’d elicit sympathy that way. By denying fans any sort of explanation, he’s allowing the Cardinals to control the story – to explain their position without discussing the years and dollars they offered. DeWitt and Mozeliak came off measured, unfazed and still confident despite the best player in baseball declaring he’s open for business come November.
Silence, in this situation, only exacerbates the circus that will surround Pujols from now until the bidding ends. Pujols doesn't need to answer every question with great detail. Merely holding court buys him the ability to tell reporters the rest of the year that he answered their questions in February and nothing has changed.
The last thing Pujols needs is to appear secretive. Assumptions lead to misinformation, and misinformation could have led to Pujols looking like the bad guy when he wants what's fair.
And anything less than Ryan Howard ain't fair.
The only way the Cardinals could have bungled their advantage was by not offering something fair and competitive, so for them to play "Price Is Right" – don't go over or you lose the Showcase! – means one of two things:
1. They're two steps ahead of everyone, and they expect Pujols to play right into their hands.
2. They have absolutely no intention of re-signing Pujols.
Since the second scenario makes no sense – Pujols is simply too valuable to throw away with a lowball offer – let's examine the first. Though their offer was meager, the Cardinals showed a willingness to negotiate – not to meet Pujols' demands, by any means, but a malleability necessary to striking an accord at some point.
Never did they intend to bet against themselves, certainly not at 10 years and $300 million, when the free market has yet to establish Pujols' value. The contracts for Howard and Teixeira seem a good primer, though, and after an offseason in which owners spent well over $1 billion, it is safe to say the bidding for Pujols will start plenty higher than $21 million a year.
Here comes the sneaky part: When it does, surely the Cardinals will raise their bid. How high they go will be the mystery. Mozeliak and DeWitt intimated that the Cardinals could not field a competitive team with Pujols signed for what he was asking. This is a steaming load, of course, management pabulum that provides a ready-made excuse if he bolts. They Cardinals' revenue streams are in no danger of drying up anytime soon, and even if they haven't the media money of a coastal team, their gate revenues are among baseball's best.
Pujols could point all this out. He could call the offer offensive (which, even if for a decade, it is). He could blame the team for trying to play him (which, it seems, they are). He could pillory the Cardinals.
Only that's not Pujols' style. Creating dysfunction on Day 1 in camp is bad business. Fostering progress, on the other hand, takes only a bit of work, and it will save him and his teammates untold grief.
Pujols needs to look classy. To reiterate his love for the Cardinals. To act cordial. To treat the interest in his contract not as an intrusion but a testament to what he's helped build. To pledge that he'll keep an open mind going forward. To smile. To hear all the questions and reserve his right not to answer those he sees no gain from answering.
This isn't about public-relations spinning. He needs nobody along his side to help filter questions. Pujols is a man who has built his life on strength both mental and physical, and even if he faces difficult inquiries into his future, they're ones better answered now to get them out of the way. It's about being honest and forthright and open about 2011 and beyond.
Without Pujols' voice, the mischaracterizations could continue. Pujols wants to avoid being the next Alex Rodriguez(notes), so vilified for the $252 million deal Texas handed him. By telling the truth about the money – just how important it is Pujols has yet to say – he gives a clearer perspective, one that reasonable people can respect. And by giving the Cardinals every chance to pay him what the market says he's worth, Pujols puts the onus back on the team.
There would be tough moments. Awkward situations. A few questions, frankly, that he won't like to hear. But Albert Pujols needs to talk Thursday.
The circus' ringmaster has been silent long enough.