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To understand St. Louis' relationship with Albert Pujols(notes), go beyond the walls of Busch Stadium, where every player in a Cardinals uniform, from Stan Musial to Stubby Clapp, sets hearts aflutter. It is in the bars, at the water coolers, during the lunch hours that the chatter inevitably turns to Albert and his decision. And it was at a local YMCA that words turned to action, and that one small group of fans vowed to do their tiny part in influencing that choice.
Ron Heinz and a few friends sat together after a pickup basketball game and tried to answer a simple question: What could they do for Albert? None of them knows Pujols beyond his ability to hit a baseball like nobody else alive, and all of them can only hope to someday earn 1 percent of the free agent contract he's going to sign this offseason for more than $200 million.
Still, even the man who has everything must need something, and Albert Pujols' weakness happens to be one of the things that makes him so strong. He started the Pujols Family Foundation in 2005, and it has raised more than $4 million to help the families of children with Down syndrome as well as the impoverished in his homeland, the Dominican Republic. If Heinz and his friends couldn't help Pujols, they could help his foundation.
And soon enough they brainstormed the perfect play on words: Sign Pujols. Like, sign him to a contract, Cardinals. And an actual, physical sign urging the team to do so.
Go to SignPujols.org and it's right there: the pencil drawing of Pujols, the Gateway Arch in the background, a reproduction of his signature, all on an embossed, custom-printed, stamped-metal sign. It costs $15. The signs are about half that to make and ship. So far they've sold about 150, which comes out to $1,200 or so for the foundation.
"We're cautiously optimistic," Heinz said. "We've got a long season. Hopefully, we can get in the thousands."
Much of that depends on Pujols' evolving relationship with the Cardinals and their fans, of course. His contract-negotiation stalemate with the team during spring training – Pujols was seeking the biggest contract in sports history, and the Cardinals' reported offer was around 10 years and $210 million – left a mixed impression with fans. Some want to keep him around at any price. Others understand the danger in such a massive outlay for a 31-year-old. And even more cringe at the absurdity of dealing in such dollar amounts.
"A lot of people I know have written him off in a weird sort of way," Heinz said. "He's been a likeable guy doing good things, and all of a sudden it looks like it's a money game. Everybody here, especially with the deep roots of the Cardinals, has a bad taste in their mouth. It's changed people's minds, their feelings with him. It's definitely going to be interesting to see how it plays out."
When Pujols started the season with the worst game of his career, then proceeded to have one of his more dreadful weeks, it only exacerbated the feelings. Heinz' wife, Jennifer, told him: "For that kind of money, he'd better improve."
Which he has. Not to a Pujolsian level yet – his .250 batting average, .317 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage are all about 30 percent below his career averages – but his seven home runs and 18 RBIs keep it from being a lost month.
"Things are starting to come around," said Heinz, ever the fan. "I guess it's still a slower start than past years. There are still going to be people out there who aren't sure. For the most part, people are feeling better. It doesn't hurt when you're winning games."
If not for Ryan Franklin's(notes) perpetual malfunctions at the back of the Cardinals' bullpen, their lead would be far greater than the half-game at which it stands today. The idea is that winning will make it more difficult for Pujols to leave. And an off season might not be the worst thing for those in St. Louis, either, scaring off teams that otherwise might have considered throwing $30 million a year at him.
The prospect of him leaving worries Heinz. He grew up a Cardinals fan. So did his friends. Corey Gibbar drew the picture of Pujols for the sign. Mike Grubb designed the sign. Heinz bought the domain name for $3 and programmed it. They asked the Pujols Family Foundation for the go-ahead to use its name and went to Stout, a 125-year-old metal fabrication company out of St. Louis, for the product.
It's not some flimsy tin foil job, either. With holes in the four corners, the sign, Heinz hopes, will hang in basements across St. Louis. They emblazoned the bottom right-hand corner with the year so in a decade or two people will have context to the Summer of Albert.
Which it soon will turn into if the Cardinals and Pujols' representative, Dan Lozano, keep their vow not to negotiate during the season. The weeks will tick away and turn into months, the summer will pass into fall, and suddenly there will be an impasse no longer. It will be Pujols and a market that overpays good players – and defies logic for stars.
So when word of their deeds drift back to the benefactor of the Sign Pujols campaign, Heinz and his friends hope it resonates. They want him for their own jealous reasons, and those of millions to whom Pujols means so much.
"If he leaves, I don't think it's going to be quite like LeBron, where you see people out in the streets doing things," Heinz said. "But you'll see people not wear his jersey. A lot of the feelings surrounding him would change. You'd see people who are upset."
At the bars and the water coolers and the lunch hours, all the way out to the YMCA, the places where St. Louis' heart would skip a beat without Pujols – and where a few friends are doing their part to make sure it never happens.
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