ST. LOUIS – The kids could handle the mess. Never mind that Albert Pujols(notes) created it. This is his clubhouse, where his rules apply and where the term leader is thrown around rather liberally considering real leaders, you know, lead. They own their mistakes, like a ninth-inning error in the World Series, and they damn sure don't let the pups in the clubhouse, the ones in their first postseason, stand and answer questions they're not equipped to answer.
And yet there it was, an empty locker flanked by an empty chair to match the emptiness in the air. The St. Louis Cardinals had blown Game 2 at home, and it hurt. Two sacrifice flies in the ninth inning proved enough for the Texas Rangers, who turned eight innings of despondence into one of triumph in a pulse-pounding 2-1 victory Thursday night. At the center of it was a cutoff throw on which Pujols whiffed. The ball slipped away, allowing what would be the winning run to advance into scoring position. Pujols mimicked the ball, showering, dressing and dashing before the clubhouse doors opened.
Part of stardom – perhaps the hardest part – is accountability. Pujols is not accountable to the media. This is not about that. Nor is it about his accountability to fans that may or may not want to know how he spit the bit in a crucial game. Pujols, more than anything, must be accountable to his teammates, those he ostensibly leads. He needs to stand up after losses so Jason Motte(notes) and Jon Jay(notes) and Allen Craig(notes) and David Freese(notes) don't have to.
Motte, in his third full season, blew the save by giving up a bloop single to Ian Kinsler(notes) and the line-drive single to Elvis Andrus(notes) whose relay Pujols botched. Motte talked for nearly 30 minutes, tackling the same questions again and again, most of them about what this means to the Cardinals' hopes, something better addressed by someone who has won and lost a World Series and might know.
[Video: Albert Pujols' error proves costly]
Across the way was Jay, in his second season. He made the throw to Pujols. It wasn't a great one. Jay said he "pulled it a little bit." He felt bad. He executed poorly. He also stood behind it. In fact, Jay said, he had talked about it on the bench with Pujols.
"We both said we should've probably did a little bit better," Jay said.
There, too, were Craig and Freese, both kids themselves, going through the ringer. Combined, Motte, Jay, Craig and Freese have less experience in the major leagues than Pujols. Together, they make about 1/10th the money he does. Also absent were Yadier Molina(notes), Matt Holliday(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes), 28 seasons of major league service among them.
They could disappear because of the culture Pujols created, one the organization enables. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa empowers Pujols to do what he pleases, right or wrong, even if it's the equivalent of ordering the lobster-stuffed filet and sticking the minimum-wage worker with the bill. He will face no discipline. He never does. That is life with Pujols, and the Cardinals' Omertà means nobody calls him on it.
One Cardinals player, asked why Pujols left, shrugged his shoulders. Another question, about whether that bothered him, produced a smile. He didn't know what to say. And if he did, he wouldn't dare say it.
Here's the thing: The Cardinals wouldn't be here without Pujols. They would be a .500 team without him. On the field, he earns every bit of his $16 million and is worth twice as much. He is the most spectacular hitting talent of his generation. He might be the best right-handed hitter ever. His ability stupefies almost daily.
It is not his responsibility to be a spokesman for the Cardinals, either. Plenty of superlative players do not like engaging the media. Chase Utley(notes). Miguel Cabrera(notes). It's understandable. Losses hurt. Talking about losses pours alcohol in that wound. The media can ask uncomfortable questions. It's a weird give-and-take.
Until it's not part of Pujols' job description – and with the media money that helps keep Major League Baseball afloat and Pujols' salary stratospheric, it is – it's his responsibility to protect his teammates from having to swallow an excessive portion of that grief, especially when much of it is on him. Leaders do that.
The word leader, frankly, is loaded. What is leadership? It's not some ambiguous thing, like the Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." No, it's a set of responsibilities, the greatest of which might be doing something so others – particularly those without the proper knowledge of it – don't have to.
As difficult as leadership is to quantify, it's even tougher to value. The highest-paid player in baseball history, Alex Rodriguez(notes), isn't a leader. The second highest-paid, Derek Jeter(notes), is. No leader – not General Patton – could have rid the Boston Red Sox clubhouse of its toxicity in September. Leadership is left to individual moments, defining instances – explaining away, say, a curious play in the World Series.
At first, official scorers didn't give Pujols an error. Kinsler took a wide turn at third base, even though coach Dave Anderson held a forceful stop sign, and the scorers figured Pujols let the ball sail to the catcher to prevent Kinsler from scoring. Replays showed Pujols' half-baked effort at squeezing the ball into his glove missed, and Andrus, who had stopped at first, continued on into scoring position and came home on Michael Young's(notes) sacrifice fly.
"I didn't have a real good shot at it," La Russa said. "I heard Albert talking to Yadi about it later. I'm not sure exactly what happened."
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Tony La Russa, not sure exactly what happened? Sorry. Not buying it. He was protecting Pujols because that's what the Cardinals have done for a decade, and that's why he'd be best served re-signing this offseason and not going to a place where someone may dare call him out for an error. Here, they genuflect. They know no better.
Now the Cardinals head to Texas' bandbox without home-field advantage on an unhappy flight, their streak of 16 getaway victories gone. Pujols almost certainly will talk after Game 3, because the Cardinals will tell him how bush league it looks to biff the game and peace out. And he'll do it because when he's not mad at himself or mad at an outcome, Pujols is rational and understands his responsibility.
In fact, that's the saddest part. If he had cut off that throw, and Andrus hadn't scored, and the Cardinals had pulled off a victory in the bottom of the ninth or extra innings, Pujols would've taken his time to shower, dressed himself carefully and stood before the cameras and notepads to talk about what a good win it was. He might not say anything interesting or of import, but that isn't the point.
A leader leads through good and bad. And if Albert Pujols truly wants to consider himself as one, and the Cardinals continue to empower him accordingly, perhaps next time he'll think twice before he leaves the kids to mop up his mess.
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