Pujols' crossroads complicate Cardinals' title

Jeff Passan

ST. LOUIS – Behind the stage, Albert Pujols(notes) lurched around with this look on his face. It wasn't joy. Exuberance accompanies joy, and he was his collected self. It wasn't elation, either, the prevalent emotion throughout the rest of Busch Stadium, which sang in unison a paean to their St. Louis Cardinals. It was accomplishment, and it was satisfaction, and it was fulfillment, three things with which Pujols is more familiar than any baseball player of his generation. His tongue jutted from lips stretched into a thin smile, and he nodded, like he knew something the rest of us didn't.

Pujols was sneaking up on people. First Tony La Russa, his manager, his father figure, his confidant. Pujols laid the most delicate slap on La Russa's cheek with his right hand, something the teacher usually reserves for his pupil, not vice versa. Then John Mozeliak, his general manager, found two bulging arms wrapped around him, and Pujols' tongue still was sticking out, and he had to know something the rest of us didn't.

To figure that out necessitated removing the obvious, which took one glance at the surroundings: confetti twirling in the wind, 47,399 convulsant people packed inside Busch Stadium and a scoreboard that showed the Cardinals had beaten the Texas Rangers 6-2 in Game 7 of the 107th World Series, one of the best history deigned to produce. Albert Pujols knew all of this, too, because as the Cardinals' first baseman he had won one of the games single-handedly and helped guide the franchise to its 11th championship with superlative play throughout the 2011 season.

The smirk accompanied Pujols off the field and into the Cardinals' wet-and-wild clubhouse, where he donned a pair of swimming goggles, grabbed bottles of Budweiser and went to work drenching anyone and everyone within beershot. Outside it was raining mist and inside it was raining suds and baseball's month of madness, from the regular season's amazing last day Sept. 28 to the World Series' do-or-die flourish Oct. 28, would end amid the dueling showers.

[Related: Cardinals win World Series the easy way]

Between those days, teams played 38 of the 41 possible playoff games. They engaged in one-run nailbiters, bullpen-heavy chess games and slugfests. They saw records fall and, round by round, teams do the same. And at 10:22 p.m., when Allen Craig(notes) squeezed a flyball in left field, when Cardinals reliever Jason Motte(notes) yelled "Come get some!" to catcher Yadier Molina(notes), when the Cardinals, down to their final strike twice less than 24 hours earlier, emptied the dugout into a pile of arms and legs and grins and dying vocal cords, it ended.

Which meant that the Cardinals' long delay of the inevitable was over, too. Pujols, the franchise's rock and baseball's standard bearer for 11 years, would hit free agency Thursday at 12:01 a.m. ET. He did not want to talk about it, not while the euphoria of his second championship suffused him.

"It doesn't matter the numbers, it doesn't matter the records, it doesn't matter the money you make," Pujols said. "What matters is to raise that trophy and to be able to bring that smile to the city of St. Louis, and not just the city of St. Louis but all our fans around the world."

He sounded, by God, like a man who wanted to stay. Because with what happened here, who wouldn't?

Poor Ava Carpenter couldn't clear the tears from her eyes. She is 6 years old. A streak of red coursed through her blonde hair. Most of the Cardinals ladies, even the littlest ones, dyed at least one lock of hair. Ava wore red boots, too, and as proud as she was of her daddy and as tough as she was trying to be for his sake, she couldn't get past the gigantic Cardinals mascot causing her waking nightmares.

"She hates Fredbird," Alyson Carpenter said. "Instant terror."

Alyson glanced at her husband, Chris Carpenter, and watched Ava run toward him. She clung to his leg as cameras ringed him. Everyone wanted to know what it felt like to win another championship and become the first pitcher in a decade to start three World Series games and complete this comeback, this crazy comeback that started a night earlier and culminated in 24 hours of lunacy. And Carpenter, always one for word economy, simply said: "Best time I've ever had."

Inside the clubhouse, a begoggled Pujols drenched every teammate in sight.
(US Presswire)

Which made sense. What the Cardinals did defied reason. They were 10½ games back in the wild-card race Aug. 25. They won the final playoff spot the last day of the season thanks to a historic Atlanta Braves choke. They beat mighty Philadelphia in the division series, favored Milwaukee in the league championship series and the powerful Rangers in the World Series the day after their heart stopped beating and they needed resuscitation twice.

[World Series slideshow: Check out photos from Game 7]

So they treated Friday night like a new lease on life, which really was something like their eighth or ninth or however many the luckiest cats get. Music thumped before the game, Lil Wayne and Sublime and rock and country, everything to represent the cultural tapestry inside St. Louis' clubhouse. The Cardinals danced and laughed and readied for the first World Series Game 7 since 2002 with far fewer nerves than La Russa, who admitted to pregame jitters.

Carpenter, 36, felt no such pangs. He was pitching on three days' rest for the second time in his career and second this postseason, and when the first four Rangers reached base and two crossed the plate, the decision to start him over Kyle Lohse(notes) or Edwin Jackson(notes) looked ill-fated. Then Carpenter morphed back into Carpenter, and down went hitters, a few at a time, then more, until the sixth inning ended and the Rangers had mustered just two more hits.

"I felt better and stronger as the game went on, no question about it," Carpenter said. "I got in a little rhythm, in control of my body, and was able to really work the game the way I wanted to work it."

Nobody was certain Carpenter was the Cardinals' starter until the morning of Game 7, when La Russa called his pitching coach and consigliere, Dave Duncan, to discuss the merits of the other pitchers.

"Let's lay out the options," La Russa said.

"It's Carp," Duncan said.

He hung up.

The Cardinals had their starter.

Tony La Russa stood next to his wife, Elaine, and surveyed the madness on the field. He had just won his third World Series and second in six years, and each time he tried to take a snapshot and drop it in a lockbox somewhere in his brain so he wouldn't forget the look, the sound, the smell, the taste, the feel, more than anything, of a championship.

La Russa is a father figure for Pujols, who has been the club’s rock for 11 years.
(US Presswire)

When he turned around, a mountain of a man stood before him. It was Mark McGwire. La Russa smiled and lifted his left arm. He guided his right hand onto his forearm and pinched it. McGwire grinned back, raised his thumbs and index fingers into pincers and tested out La Russa's chest. Yes. This was real.

Of all the decisions La Russa made to build his ballclub with Mozeliak, the most controversial by a marathon was bringing McGwire aboard as a hitting coach. He would admit his steroid use before his hiring, confront it when asked about it thereafter and try to blend into the background as coaches do. McGwire possessed a special ability not with mechanics as much as with the instillation of confidence into grown men whose levels wax and wane.

[Related: Rangers had nothing left in tank for Game 7]

One case in particular came with a 28-year-old third baseman named David Freese(notes), a bundle of talent held back by a tangle of injuries. All season long, McGwire had asked Freese to turn on inside pitches, and a night after he fought off one of those one-strike-left dilemmas with a game-tying triple to right field and finished the night with a walk-off home run to center field, his first at-bat ended with a two-run double into left-center field.

"It was inside black, and he threw his hands," McGwire said. "It was one of those things we've been working on all year: driving that inside pitch into that gap over there."

When the ball landed and two runs came around to tie the score 2-2, McGwire turned to his co-hitting coach, Mike Aldrete.

"Hard work," he said, "does pay off."

Becca Rose, 20, awaited the arrival with the nervous energy one would expect of a college girl holding above her head a sign that said FUTURE MRS. FREESE, with an arrow pointed down. The current Mr. Freese, fresh off winning the World Series MVP to go along with his NLCS MVP, was parading along the side of the stands, high-fiving anyone with an extended arm, getting showered in thanks, trying to return them, doing everything short of kissing babies, which surely would be in his future when he becomes governor of Missouri.

After this, why not? Freese, the hometown kid who returned to St. Louis in Mozeliak's first trade as general manager, had followed his incredible Game 6 with a seminal hit in Game 7 and cemented his place in Cardinals lore. Everybody wanted a piece of him, even just to hear his voice, and he's neither jaded nor impolite enough to avoid obliging.

David Freese was big with the bat, setting an MLB postseason RBI record, and chipped in with his glove as well.
(US Presswire)

"I don't have a word yet to describe David Freese," Pujols said.

"He's a superstar," Lance Berkman(notes) said.

So of course Rose wanted a big, fat diamond becoming of a baseball wife, or at least, for now, an acknowledgement of her existence. Except that she would have to fight with everyone else for that sliver of attention.

"How do you feel, David?" someone asked.


"We love you, David," another said.

"I appreciate it."

[Related: David Freese wins World Series MVP, gets cool car]

On and on it went for more than an hour, strangers treating him like they knew him because he was born in the metro area and talked on TV and did for this region's team, its pride, what generations of previous Cardinals had done: bring home a title. St. Louis' 11 are second to the New York Yankees' 27, and the 11 in '11 slogan now had meaning.

The glad-handing ended without a marriage proposal, and Freese worked his way into familiar company. His mother, Lynn, looked at him with concerned eyes.

"You sleeping in tomorrow?" she asked.

"If I go to sleep," he said.

He looped down the dugout steps and into the Cardinals' video room, where the warmth helped dry the booze from his sopping-wet clothes. In there were Aldrete and Pat Burrell(notes), the former outfielder who won a championship with San Francisco last year. Burrell is a friend of infielder Nick Punto(notes) and not some Forrest Gump type who shows up at historic events, though he had somehow weaseled his way into one-on-one time with Freese. And as they chatted, and the Future Mrs. Freese waited for her future husband to return, the few people left in the still-full lower bowl who hadn't touched Freese's hand hoped to raise him with a chant that won't get old anytime soon in St. Louis.

M-V-Freese. M-V-Freese.

On plane rides throughout this season, Matt Holliday(notes) would awaken to a fierce thump on the top of his head. The first time it hurt like hell, and all the ones after that wounded his pride more than anything else.

Adam Wainwright(notes) liked sitting behind him, slipping on his 2006 World Series ring and popping Holliday good. When Holliday turned around, Wainwright would say: "I got one of these and you don't." And as old as the joke got to Holliday, it never lost its amusement to Wainwright, bored as he was rehabbing his elbow from Tommy John surgery.

The loss of Wainwright, St. Louis' ace, at the beginning of spring training portended awful things for the Cardinals. Cincinnati returned a loaded division champion. Milwaukee had traded for starters Zack Greinke(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes) to fortify a middling rotation. The Cardinals signed Berkman, sure, but at 35 he may have been past his prime. And bringing in Punto wasn't supposed to do much.

St. Louis hung with Milwaukee while Cincinnati faded, hung in enough that come late July, Mozeliak made the most criticized trade of the deadline season: dealing the young and multitalented center fielder, Colby Rasmus(notes), for pitchers Edwin Jackson, Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel(notes). It was a win-now move for a team that didn't look like it had much of a chance of winning. None had a World Series ring, nor did Rafael Furcal(notes), the shortstop Mozeliak acquired from the Dodgers. Same with Arthur Rhodes(notes), the veteran left-hander signed after Texas cut him.

And after a miserable beginning of August, including a sweep by the Dodgers, the Cardinals started to play well. Dotel and Rhodes' personalities melded with Berkman and Punto to set a wacky tone inside a serious clubhouse. Winning helped. The Cardinals' lineup started hitting, and the bullpen evolved into a strength, and the starting pitching fortified, and La Russa went to work deploying each of his units with aplomb for most of the postseason.

[Video: The final out | Champagne celebration]

Veteran reliever Octavio Dotel got the second and third outs of the seventh inning.
(Getty Images)

It was unknowns such as Rzepczynski, rehab cases like Dotel, cadavers like Rhodes, nonentities like Allen Craig, who had lead-taking hits in three of the Cardinals' four World Series wins. His home run to right field off Matt Harrison(notes) in the third inning put St. Louis ahead, 3-2, and for good in Game 7. The ball landed in St. Louis' bullpen. Rzepczynski corralled it. Motte ran around with his fist pumping. Dotel whooped. Six innings later, they landed on top of one another in the middle of the diamond.

"Nobody believes me," Dotel said, "but we won the World Series. Ha ha ha ha ha."

He laughed because he had his entire 13-year career without a title, same as Berkman, who was the first Cardinal to hoist the commissioner's trophy. Holliday had waited eight years – "He said I can't rub it in his face anymore because he's got one, too," Wainwright said – and Furcal a dozen and Rhodes 20. They were all champions, and it felt good.

Dotel couldn't stop celebrating. Bottle after bottle he shook, popped the cork, sprayed it toward Pujols and repeated the derisive nickname Milwaukee outfielder Nyjer Morgan(notes) tagged him with this summer: "Alberta! Alberta! Albertita!"

He wouldn't stop. Nothing was off-limits here, not in the haze of a championship. As Pujols' eyes burned and twitched to blink the drink out of them, Dotel kept squirting, yelling, laughing.

"He's a free agent!" Dotel said. "Alberta! Say hello to my little friend!"

A few times a year, Red Schoendienst, 88, will put on his old Cardinals uniform, wield a fungo bat and take a couple licks to make sure he's still got it. He does. On most occasions, Schoendienst prefers the sort of attire he wore Friday night: a pair of gray slacks, a tan jacket and an orange shirt – octogenarian business casual. He is, along with Stan Musial and Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals royalty. Over the last decade, Albert Pujols has joined them. Come Thursday, he could abscond and vacate whatever throne is his.

"I think he'll come back," Schoendienst said. "I hope he does. I hope the Cardinals can afford him. I think he might come back."

The regressive confidence in Schoendienst's proclamations makes sense. The Cardinals want Pujols back. They ache for him to spend his career here and retire in their colors. He was here for the championship in 2006 and contributed plenty more to this one. Pujols hit three home runs and racked up a record 14 total bases in Game 3. He scored the Cardinals' fifth run Friday in the wacky inning that saw them plate two without a hit – walk, hit by pitch, intentional walk, walk, hit by pitch. He would set every record possible with another decade here.

"If Albert stays," Schoendienst said, "maybe he'll have a statue next to Stan's."

[Y! Sports shop: Buy Cardinals title gear]

The Musial statue is a regular meeting place for Cardinals fans, where families convene and friends assemble and everyone readies for a game. They take pictures of him and tell stories of him and revere him.

They want to do the same with Pujols.

Fans celebrate the Cards' 11th World Series title around the Stan Musial statue outside the new Busch Stadium.

"He's like Stan, he's like Bob, he's like Lou, he's like Red. He's a Cardinal," McGwire said. "I'm glad I'm not in a position to have to make that decision. It would be very different and very weird to see him in another uniform. The guy's unbelievable. He's the greatest player right now. By the time he's done playing, he'll be the greatest of all time."

Berkman asked Pujols tonight to come back next year, and Pujols laughed. Maybe he wants to. Maybe he doesn't. He won't say. He can't say. The glow of this postseason – it's too bright, too blinding, the sort of thing that screws up best-laid plans. "Success," Mozeliak said, "should help" in retaining him, though even a championship can't compel a team to wreck its budget by devoting a disproportionate amount to one player, which the Cardinals might have to do to retain Pujols, depending on the market.

The alternative is simple, of course: let him walk, and even the afterglow of a championship may not buffer the backlash. As much as the Cardinals would survive without him – and they would – they're better with Pujols, much better, and both parties recognize that.

"Listen," Pujols said. "I'm going to be prayerful about it. Whatever decision I make hopefully is the best decision I make for my family and the fans and everybody."

Re-signing is the only way to mollify each of those parties, and regardless of how many hundreds of millions of dollars it takes, the Cardinals will try. They see the Pujols jerseys in the stands, thousands of people wearing No. 5, including one standing outside the clubhouse. Landon Edmonds, the son of former Cardinal Jim Edmonds(notes), was there to celebrate with his dad, and even he wore a Pujols jersey.

On opening day this season, Landon threw out the first pitch, and Pujols had caught it. Inside the bowels of Busch Stadium, Pujols talked about the 2011 season, the madness it would entail with his upcoming free agency and the Cardinals' uncertainty and the marriage of the two. And he said something with the sort of confidence and conviction only someone with his pedigree can.

"We're going to win."

Win, huh?

"Trust me."

Out came the smirk, the same one that showed itself Friday night as Pujols paraded around having won not just something but everything. His six weeks of struggle at the beginning of the season, and the Cardinals’ near-collapse in the middle of it, and all of the other things that could have spoiled his feeling were behind him. Turns out he had known something the rest of us didn't. Albert Pujols again would be a champion, accomplished, satisfied and fulfilled, this chapter of his story finished, the next waiting to be written.

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