JUPITER, Fla. – Baseball is about to get its version of The Decision.
Barring a dramatic change, Albert Pujols’(notes) noon deadline Wednesday to work out a contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals will pass without an agreement. Which turns the next nine months into a frenzy without the histrionics of LeBron James’ free agency but with every bit the far-reaching implications: the sport’s best player choosing his next destination and perhaps crushing the city that so loves him.
Pujols won’t let the process turn into the charade in which James indulged, of course. He’s not that myopic. What happens around him, however, is not under his control, and if the ill-informed rant from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on Tuesday morning is any indication, the countdown to his free agency can be summed up in one simple word: Albertageddon.
As Pujols angles for a deal in the $300 million range and the Cardinals weigh the prospect of losing their franchise player if they don’t meet it, La Russa blasted the Major League Baseball Players Association for “pushing” Pujols and his agent, Dan Lozano, to score a record contract.
While La Russa excels in creating bogeymen, this was excessive and nonsensical even for him: Before the deadline passed, he was diverting blame away from the team and Pujols, and onto a nameless, faceless entity.
“I know what he’s going through with the union and, to some extent, his representatives, because his representatives are getting beaten up by the union,” La Russa said. “Set the bar, set the bar. That’s [expletive], really and truly, but you’ve got to deal with it …
“I know that he’s getting pressured. And it’s not arm-twisting. It’s dropping anvils on your back and through the roof of your house.”
La Russa admitted he had no first-hand knowledge of the MLBPA trying to influence contract negotiations. He called it “a guaranteed assumption” and said “the union would be the first to admit they’re going to push him.”
The union did anything but.
“We have had no conversations with Albert or Dan Lozano or any representative of Albert’s about the numbers,” MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner told Yahoo! Sports. “No pressure. Not even any conversations. Our concern is that players make an informed decision when exercising their rights under the contract. Knowing Albert, knowing Danny, a very sophisticated player and representative, they’re going to make well-considered decisions.”
La Russa’s tirade underscored the emotions that surround Pujols, St. Louis’ most beloved athlete since Stan Musial, who on Tuesday received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed on a citizen. Pujols set the original deadline for Tuesday but pushed it back in deference to Musial. La Russa, it seemed, couldn’t do the same.
Already this negotiation was larded with passion. Fans are taking sides. Some paint Pujols as greedy. Others call the Cardinals cheapskates. Both want the same thing: for Pujols and the team to come to a détente and ensure he ends up like Musial, a Cardinal for the entirety of his Hall of Fame career. For La Russa to interject himself wasn’t just irresponsible. It was unnecessary.
Though it’s not out of character. La Russa is baseball’s great enabler. Until the moment Mark McGwire admitted he used steroids, La Russa staunchly denied any implication that he might have – and then hired him as his hitting coach. Pujols is his present-day pet, and even if he chooses to leave St. Louis at the end of the season, La Russa tried to give him a scapegoat.
Blaming the union was silly. Pujols might retire as the greatest hitter ever. Nobody needs to tell Lozano that he should get paid like it. If the Cardinals are unwilling to give Pujols hundreds of millions of dollars on his terms – and considering his age (31), his body (beat up) and other concerns (whether he really is 31, the post-35 drop-off, baseball-wide depth at his position), such a position is reasonable – another team will. As Barry Zito(notes) and countless other players proved, all it takes is one owner drunk on possibility.
It does behoove the union for Pujols to set a new standard in overall value and average annual value, figures owned by Alex Rodriguez(notes) for more than a decade. The idea of micromanaging contracts of Pujols’ magnitude, though, “just isn’t accurate,” Weiner said. While Cliff Lee(notes) set a new standard for pitchers at $24 million a year, he turned down more guaranteed money from New York and Texas to sign with Philadelphia.
“We were happy with Cliff Lee,” Weiner said. “He did exactly what we want players to do and exactly how we want contracts to operate. He was a free agent. There was an active market. He and his family made decisions based on where they wanted to be. That’s what free agency is about. Not only we were we not upset Cliff got to go to the Phillies, we applauded him.”
The negotiation’s importance to Lozano is far greater. After breaking off from his longtime agency, the Beverly Hills Sports Council, Lozano will define his new business with this contract. He’s got one chance to get Pujols’ deal right.
And it’s most important to Pujols, who for the last decade has been the most underpaid player in baseball, even as he made more than $100 million. Though he signed the contract early in his career and guaranteed himself riches, Pujols will not skimp this time around. If he was willing to, he would’ve signed an extension already. Pujols wants top dollar. Should St. Louis balk at giving it to him, other teams – say, the Chicago Cubs? – won’t.
La Russa absolving Pujols of responsibility was simply the start of a season filled with distractions. There will be speculation. Innuendo. Reports. Denials. Anger. Frustration. Emotion. Everything the Cardinals do in 2011 is tied to Pujols’ future. If he hits two home runs in a game, it only increases his value. If the Cardinals lose, it pollutes his chances of returning.
Everything matters, the microscope on Pujols amped up to maximum power, and it bottlenecks toward November, when the most frenzied free agency in baseball history will begin. A-Rod may have been younger and more desirable, but Pujols’ choice comes with a tapestry of history. This is about loyalty and money and not where but if the twain shall met.
Just remember one thing along the way: The Decision is Pujols’ and no one else’s.