ST. LOUIS – In the St. Louis Cardinals' dugout, they like to joke about Albert Pujols'(notes) invisibility cloak. Pujols is a lot of things. One of them is not fast. To call him lumbering would be kind. To call him a long-lost Molina brother might be more accurate.
So a few years ago, his teammates kept wondering how, exactly, Pujols was stealing so many bases. Here was this 6-foot-3, 240-pound man whose pained gait was more Bolt the dog than Usain Bolt, and he was among the top 25 basestealers in the National League and praised for his savvy in going first to third or second to home on singles. There must be some secret beyond his oversized baseball brain.
The rundown occurred Sunday in Game 2 of the Cardinals' National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. St. Louis clung to a 5-4 lead in the seventh inning. Pujols stood on third base having earlier in the inning laced a go-ahead single. The batter, David Freese(notes), tapped a ball toward the mound. Pujols found himself stuck between third and home.
He could have just surrendered, to the play and the pain. He isn't just slow these days; Pujols is hurting. He plods down the first-base line even more than usual. While the Cardinals haven't said what exactly is ailing him, they've alluded to injuries in his heel and ankle, and Pujols was diagnosed in 2005 with chronic plantar fasciitis.
Still, when pitcher Brad Lidge(notes) started the rundown, Pujols stalled. He went back and forth, long enough for Lance Berkman(notes) to advance to third base and Freese to second. The out was inevitable. What it bore was not.
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Pujols limped off the field. They gave him huzzahs in the dugout. Pujols means everything to this team, this franchise, this city. Which is why as everyone prepares for Game 3 of the NLDS at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, it's with the knowledge that the next time he slips on the invisibility cloak, he may reappear wearing a different uniform.
Whether the Cardinals bow out this week to the Phillies or run the table to another unexpected World Series, there is one certainty: Albert Pujols, the greatest player of his generation, is going to be a free agent for the first time in November. He will turn 32 in January and is coming off the worst season of his career, which actually would be the best season for about 95 percent of players in the major leagues.
Such is the standard Pujols has set for himself – and the poor timing of a below-par first two months. Since then, Pujols has been, well, Pujols: an OPS near 1.000, more walks than strikeouts, 28 home runs and even five stolen bases. It is not the sort of dominance that will inspire the game's first $300 million contract. It is enough that even if the Cardinals were the lone team interested in Pujols – and sources have said that is decidedly not the case – his deal would approach $200 million.
Figuring out Pujols' worth is the tough part, particularly for a franchise that latched its identity to him over the last decade. He won three MVPs. He carried a mediocre squad to a World Series title in 2006. He placed himself alongside Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, all-time greats with his numbers. He sidled up to Stan Musial in Cardinals lore. He stayed out of trouble, raised huge amounts of money for charity and represented his community. If a franchise could build the perfect athlete, it might not have done as well as Pujols is in actuality.
"He's our leader. He's our guy," Freese said. "When he goes, we go. To see him put himself out there like that is pretty cool."
It's what makes the prospect of his free agency so foreign, so frightening for those who love the Cardinals. Picturing Pujols in another jersey and another cap just seems … wrong. Derek Jeter(notes) wears Yankee pinstripes. Albert Pujols wears Cardinal red. It's that simple, right?
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Baseball wants it to be, of course, even if Pujols heading elsewhere would be the closest the sport would come to a LeBron James situation. The sport loves its romanticism, its feel-good stories, even if only a handful of players stay on one team for their careers. Baseball would rather celebrate those who do as callbacks to the game's golden age; it's MLB's fastball to the elbow of free agency, which it never liked and still doesn't.
Surely the interested teams are watching how Pujols moves right now and wondering the wisdom of giving him three years, let alone the seven or eight or even more he seeks. He resembles Vladimir Guerrero(notes), whose body broke down after a decade-and-a-half of playing almost daily. He still goes out there. He still labors. He just isn't quite the same.
"The everyday grind of playing 11 straight years, almost every single day, is what's most impressive about Albert," said Adam Wainwright(notes), the Cardinals' ace recovering from Tommy John surgery. "The swings he takes, at-bats in huge situations all the time, putting the team on his back. His back's probably getting tired from the years of carrying us."
How much longer he does so depends on the Cardinals' organizational philosophies, their knowledge that Pujols isn't going to accept under-market dollars just to stay in St. Louis. That's the long-term. For now, it might come down to just how much pain Pujols can tolerate and whether it's enough to vanquish the best rotation in ages.
The Cardinals deemed Monday's workout optional, and Pujols took the option not to bother with it. He showed up at Busch Stadium and left before the clubhouse doors swung open. He wasn't going to expend a joule more of energy than required.
"He's just one of those guys who knows when to step on the pedal and when not to," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, and when he steps in for the first time Tuesday against Cole Hamels(notes), the RPM will rise like always.
If he gets on base – Pujols is 4 for 23 with two homers against Hamels – he'll slide on the cloak and work his magic. Pujols is just as good at scoring from second base on a single now (16 of 22 times this year) as he was his rookie season (18 of 23), and his first-to-third rate of 33 percent is plenty respectable. Even with his lower-leg problems, Pujols is as confident as ever, maybe excessively so. He has been gunned down 11 times trying to pilfer extra bases this season.
He's not going to stop, not yet, not as long as he's got a team to carry. That wouldn't be Albert Pujols' style. He may not look like the same Pujols. He may not be the same Pujols. But he is the best they've got. And once he removes his cloak this offseason, St. Louis can only hope he's wearing the only uniform he's known.
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