“I want to be a Cardinal forever,” Pujols said, his English clear and crisp.
“Jugar por los Cardenales para toda mi carrera,” he repeated in his native tongue, Spanish.
The third language was something at which Pujols hasn’t exactly excelled throughout his 10-year career: Spin. Gruff at times, grumpy at others, Pujols isn’t renowned for his bedside manner. And yet upon his arrival here at the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training site, Pujols flashed a grin and said: “The package has arrived.”
Sure had. Pujols was the whole package during a nearly 30-minute chat with reporters that focused mostly on his free agency after the 2011 season, which the star first baseman reiterated is his plan after not reaching a contract extension with the Cardinals by his Wednesday deadline. Neither the lack of an agreement nor its reported terms – an average per-year salary that would rank him as the 10th-highest-paid player in the game – rankled Pujols as he took on every question, and even managed to do so with a smile.
While he mirrored Cardinals brass in not discussing specifics of the negotiations, Pujols’ positive attitude, straightforward answers and occasional charm – “Let’s do a reality show,” he joked at one point – quelled, at least for a moment, the thought of a perpetually perturbed Pujols.
How he will stand up throughout a season of constant contract talk and enormous interest is, for now, the imperative question in the Year of Albert. While he spoke of the “pressure, pressure and pressure” he’s endured in the remarkable first decade of his career, Pujols has enjoyed the relative bubble of St. Louis. Between the nationwide interest and a media corps seduced by his chasing the biggest contract in sports history, the Pujols story is just beginning.
“Look at this,” he said, encircled by cameras and reporters. “You don’t think this is going to be a distraction all year? Come on, man. It’s not rocket science. It’s a zoo.”
The zookeeper kept order throughout the conversation. His themes were obvious by the number of times he repeated them: He has great respect for the Cardinals organization, impasses are simply a part of negotiations, he’s fully committed to winning with the Cardinals in 2011 and he plans on playing out the season without reopening negotiations. He referred to those he didn’t know with friendly salutations – guy, buddy or man – and showed just how charming he can be.
It’s not a side Pujols reveals often. He is notoriously focused and routine-oriented. Media means nothing to him. As free agency beckons, though, Pujols needs a conduit to deliver his message, especially since he will balance reaching for high dollars with staying in the good graces of St. Louis fans who naturally side with the team.
Pujols scoffed at reports that peg him seeking a deal for 10 years and $300 million, which would exceed Alex Rodriguez's(notes) 10-year contract by $25 million. The Cardinals reportedly offered between $19 million and $21 million for a decade.
“That’s so funny,” Pujols said. “Me and my agent talk every other day about you guys throwing numbers out, assuming the Cardinals offered me this, Albert asking for 10 years. We just laugh about it, and I’m pretty sure the Cardinals are, too. You guys don’t have any clue. You’re way off about the numbers you’re throwing out there.”
No one will know for sure, not until November or December or whenever Pujols decides to sign. At that point, Pujols promised, he “would never do anything like” LeBron James’ televised announcement of his free agent decision. “I’m Albert Pujols,” he said, “and he’s LeBron James.”
During the Nike-on-Nike violence, Pujols grinned again. His face looked thinner than previous years, his body trimmer. “I’m more locked in this year than ever,” Pujols promised, and for somebody who within his first 10 years locked up a place in the Hall of Fame, that’s saying something.
He’s got good reason to be, of course. The biggest contract ever is within reach. The formula is simple: typical season + crazy suitor = $300 million. And so as Pujols hopped out of his monstrous F-150 and carried a box of bats into the clubhouse, the Year of Albert began, at 7:36 a.m. sharp.
The Package Has Arrived. Sounds like a good title for a reality show that’s bound to be full of surprises.