Few inside the game believe Pujols' flirtation with the Cubs is anything more than both parties willfully using one another, but they are talking, and they are going to meet, and so it remains possibility enough to explore how St. Louis' devastation would be worthwhile collateral damage for the rest of the sport.
The NBA last season delivered the best example yet of a phenomenon that today must be called the LeBron Corollary: When someone with deep emotional ties to a city not only betrays that bond but does so in cruel fashion, it catalyzes interest in him and his sport. Pujols doesn't cut the polarizing figure of LeBron. He is, by and large, a milquetoast persona whose ability to hit a baseball harder than anybody places him in a similar stratosphere. Still, leaving baseball's self-proclaimed greatest fans for their archrival would constitute an act perhaps more treasonous than LeBron James trading Northeast Ohio for Florida. Cleveland thought nothing of Miami. St. Louis despises Chicago.
While the NBA worried that LeBron backlash would disgust fans, it did just the opposite. He became the heart of the NBA's narrative: the world vs. LeBron and the Miami Heat. Their construction drew sneers, their struggles laughs, their dominance gawks and their failure Schadenfreude. Love 'em or hate 'em, it didn't matter. The Heat, and LeBron especially, begged to be seen.
Now, let's acknowledge the important distinctions between James, Pujols and especially their leagues. The NBA is a superstar-driven enterprise in which a player such as James means far more to his team than Pujols. The Heat and Cavaliers played each other just four times last season, too, whereas the Cardinals and Cubs will play 18 times. The familiarity is likelier to tamp down the buzz, though it's possible being reminded of an all-time snub would turn Cardinals-Cubs games from tempestuous affairs to crime scenes .
Still, it's not an exaggeration to say Pujols leaving the Cardinals for the Cubs would set a new, and perhaps unbreakable, standard on sports' eff-you scale, a title LeBron holds without much competition. Rick Pitino going from Kentucky to Louisville (with an NBA stop in between) registered similarly in the 26th-most-populous state. Leo Durocher went from the Dodgers to the Giants, a cross-borough move that still enrages old Brooklyn fans. Nick Saban's decamping to Alabama left all of Louisiana burning him in effigy, even if he had coached at the NFL in between. The catch: None of them were players.
Shaquille O'Neal was, though his relocation from Orlando to Los Angeles seemed likely, as did Alex Rodriguez's(notes) walking the green-brick road from Seattle to Texas. Darryl Strawberry departed New York for Los Angeles midcareer for more money – and to play in front of his hometown crowd, which mitigated the anger. Shawn Michaels threw Marty Jannetty through a plate-glass window, and that would qualify if it didn't happen in the WWF.
The only contender alongside LeBron is Brett Favre, who led his team to a championship and later signed with a longtime rival. Favre also was in the twilight of his career. And he'd already left for the New York Jets. And the Minnesota Vikings weren't Green Bay's archrival, either. Favre joining the Vikings would be like Pujols signing with the Brewers. The equivalent to Pujols-Cubs is Favre-Bears, and chances are the entire state of Wisconsin would have spontaneously combusted had he worn a Chicago uniform.
Missouri could well do the same should this Cubs gambit turn out to be real. For now, it's easiest – and most accurate – to operate on the assumption that Pujols and the Cubs understand they need one another for a quick-and-dirty tryst.
Pujols' market shriveled because of the widespread belief that any team bothering with a bid simply would be leverage for him to return to the Cardinals and force them to budge off the reported nine-year, $198 million offer they put forth during spring training.
The Cubs don't mind that. If engaging in a flirtation raises the price for their division rival, all the better. And with new president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer trying to overhaul a culture that lapsed into mediocrity over the last three seasons, the involvement with Pujols alone bestows a feeling that the Cubs, despite bad-contract handcuffs, can still entice the best. If he goes back to St. Louis … well, he was probably going anyway. No harm in trying.
Involvement, after all, is good business. The Cubs are committing to nothing beyond a first date. Should negotiations with the Cardinals somehow fall apart and leave Pujols at a loss, it's best to have shown him care instead of standing in a long line of Johnny-come-latelies.
Because if Pujols found the audacity to leave for Chicago, he would need the loving embrace of Chicago to avoid the artillery launched from St. Louis. This would take a drastic shift, of course, not just from the Cubs – who vowed to build from within instead of diving into free agency with the profligate spending that got them in this mess – but from Pujols. He would leave a place he has spent 10 years for one where vendors sell T-shirts that say: "Pujols Mows My Lawn." He would eschew a team going for back-to-back championships for one in the midst of rebuilding. And he would imbue baseball with its biggest storyline in a season already ripening with them.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' sale should return them to relevance. The Boston Red Sox's hiring of Bobby Valentine to oversee a chaotic clubhouse could lead to glory or mass dysfunction. Epstein absconded Boston's mess for the impossibility of the Cubs job. Surely Chicago's entry into the Pujols sweepstakes prompted some under-the-table fist-pumping at MLB.
As wholesome as baseball wants to be seen, it is run by businessmen, and good businessmen today understand that conflict drives sports. The NBA thrived on it last year. The NFL does weekly, whether it's Tim Tebow's fight against his critics or Ndamukong Suh's against perceived enemies. Baseball struggles with this because the number of games in a season doesn't allow for any one storyline to resonate, breathe and grow. It needs big, bold moments to overwhelm the monotony of six months and 162 games.
Pujols as LeBron. That would sell, all right.
Beyond the money, the appreciation and anything else that could sway Pujols is this: Can he embrace villainy? LeBron did, and he is bigger than ever. Never has Pujols seemed to value that, though doubt serves as his jet fuel, and he's at his best when criticism mounts.
The likelihood of Pujols deserting St. Louis for Chicago remains scant, as it should, because he fits in St. Louis and belongs in a Cardinals uniform. He's doing what he must to extract the value he deserves, lest he roll over and accept a lowball from the Cardinals or Florida Marlins, the only other team known to have offered him a contract. Whether he gets together with the Cubs at the Winter Meetings next week or soon thereafter, it will tantalize the mind and titillate the senses.
Flirtation, as we know, can blossom into infatuation. Just as free agency does odd things to teams' plans, it likewise can skew a player's best intentions. And so the baseball world waits and watches its best player, fingers crossed for the double-cross.
Albert Pujols, a Chicago Cub. As wrong as it sounds, as wrong as it looks, what a show it would be.