JUPITER, Fla. – Last spring, Albert Pujols(notes) and the St. Louis Cardinals held a clandestine meeting to discuss a contract extension that would keep him with the team for the rest of his career. The negotiations fizzled. That moment left the Cardinals with a choice. They could act coy, wait a year and hope Pujols agreed that theirs is a marriage worth continuing. Or they could take it as a call to action and commit every resource to signing the man who defines their franchise.
They let Pujols come to them.
And now, barring a change of heart, the best player in baseball is going to be a free agent.
Pujols' noon ET deadline for an extension passed with a whimper Wednesday, and the gravity suddenly descended on St. Louis: Life without Albert following the 2011 season is a distinct reality. Oh, they could rekindle talks during the season and come to an agreement, but that would take the Cardinals changing their tack midseason and Pujols' willingness to negotiate during a time he says he won't.
As sweet a story as it would be for Pujols to remain a Cardinal for life, to take Stan Musial's mantel and carry it for another generation, it's not that simple. Romanticism is running into commerce. Happy endings take money. Pujols is a commodity, the greatest commodity in baseball, and to approach his free agency as anything other than a business transaction would be selling himself short after playing at a discounted rate for a decade.
Both sides wanted this to work.
Sometimes it just doesn't.
Whether it can in the offseason, when other teams join the Pujols bidding, depends on his imperative. And make no mistake: Pujols is driving this. The player always does. That's what free agency is about. It tells us what's most important to a player. Is it money? Winning? Loyalty? An amalgamation of the three? Free agency offers Pujols a world of possibilities, riches beyond what the Cardinals' best proposal, which fell short in both years and annual value.
While neither Pujols nor his agent, Dan Lozano, has confirmed what they're seeking, a 10-year contract for around $300 million is a reasonable guess. Pujols wants the biggest deal in sports history. The Cardinals, fearful of his age and their ballooning payroll, are balking. The truth is simple: As much as the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals' franchise are wedded to Pujols, the team does not believe he is a $300 million player. If they did, the ink would be dry on a contract already.
Pujols is not somebody with whom the Cardinals want to play chicken. Some of the same qualities that make him such a force of nature as a baseball player – the stubbornness, the pride and especially the self-awareness of being the best at what he does – do not lend themselves to good relations at the bargaining table.
When a player is the commodity, he dictates the terms, and the Pujols camp came to the Cardinals with their expectations. It was incumbent upon the Cardinals to meet them. They failed to do so. Some other team won't.
Still, to paint this situation as strictly a money grab is inaccurate. Pujols understands his importance to St. Louis. Similarly, he gets that the Cardinals need him a lot more than he needs them. Whatever team signs him will win a decade worth of approval from fans, whose embrace will smother Pujols. He will be a god. St. Louis isn't the only city that worships its professional athletes. He has given Cardinals fans a decade of amazing performances and a World Series ring. He owes them nothing.
It comes down to a difference of opinion in value. Pujols wants back pay. It's unreasonable to believe at 41 he'll be as good as he is at 31, but when he was 21 the Cardinals paid him $200,000, and even in his best years his highest salary was below $15 million. Baseball's serf system punishes the young, and even though Pujols will have been paid $112.7 million by season's end, his request isn't unreasonable. The Cardinals should be willing to pay Pujols more than any other team because he means more to them than anyone else.
Lozano has approached this the proper way: He represents the world's best baseball player, and he refuses to settle. Lozano wants to extract the maximum value out of the player with maximum impact in Major League Baseball. Twelve years ago, he negotiated the biggest contract in baseball history, Mike Piazza's seven-year, $91 million pact with the Mets. He's determined to do it again with Pujols, be it with the Cardinals, the Cubs, the Rangers or whoever else will pay him what he's worth.
When Cardinals manager Tony La Russa blamed the MLB Players Association for pressuring Pujols to chase top dollar, he was trying to protect Pujols. It backfired, made Pujols look like a weakling who couldn't think on his own. It couldn't be further from the truth. Pujols was going after the big money all along. The Cardinals knew that. They prayed he'd change his mind. He hasn't yet.
So the narrative for the 2011 season has been set: It is the Year of Albert, and baseball's most epic free agency begins today. The questions are going nowhere, the chatter just starting before it crests in November, the real spirit of St. Louis possibly spiriting his way out of town. It's LeBron without the egotism.
As the fallout begins and continues for the next nine months, the Cardinals will have time to reflect before Pujols hits free agency. It didn't have to happen. The Cardinals made a choice. They can only hope it was the right one.