Pujols Should Stay in St. Louis

A:  Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Jim Palmer, Mike Schmidt, Robin Yount, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Jim Rice.

Q:  Who are the Hall of Famers who played at least two years in the free-agent era (beginning 1977) and spent their entire careers with one team?

If that seems like a short list, consider this: Forty-one players from that time period have made the Hall of Fame so far.  More than a quarter of them (26.8%) never changed teams.

One hundred and ninety-six other players are in the Hall of Fame.  Thirty-seven of them were with one team from start to finish.  That’s 18.9%.

Since baseball players gained control over their futures, a higher percentage of the best of them have chosen to stay put than in the days when their team could send them packing at will.

The right to move also means the right to stay.

Retired players Barry Larkin, Craig Biggio, and Edgar Martinez will probably join the list soon.  Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones and Ichiro Suzuki are the leading active candidates to do so as well.

Which brings us, at last, to the matter of Albert Pujols.

The greatest player of his time, Pujols comes to free agency after the shakiest season of his career.  Through May 29, he had only eight home runs, with a .395 slugging average and a .722 OPS – far below his previous averages over ten seasons (.624 slugging, 1.050 OPS).

By season’s end, his statistics had come close to his normal level – remarkable considering the sixteen days he missed with a broken left wrist that was expected to idle him for six weeks.  In the Cardinals’ October victory, he became just the third man to hit three home runs in a World Series game; his OPS for the eighteen games St. Louis needed was 1.155.

Nonetheless, he turns 32 in January.  Were his early struggles the first sign of age catching up with him?  What kind of deal could he expect, when the two big-spending titans of the AL East were already set at first with long-term commitments to Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez?

Before the season, he turned down an offer from St. Louis believed to be $190 million over nine years.  Was that crazy?

The answer came swiftly at the winter meetings, with word leaking that the Miami Marlins had offered him over $200 million for ten years.  Another “mystery” team is supposed to be involved at that level as well – though such unnamed squads are a staple of agent tactics, polished to a fine sheen by Scott Boras and perhaps being adopted here by Dan Lozano, who has been in the news himself a bit lately.

The Miami offer was enough to induce St. Louis to raise its package to a reported $220 million for ten years.  You don’t have to believe the completely unsupported rumors about Pujols’s real age to think that’s going to be an awfully burdensome contract in its later years, when the team is paying top dollar for a first baseman in his forties.

But Pujols is no ordinary player, and the St. Louis Cardinals are no ordinary team.  There is no fan base as devoted, as positive, and as idolatrous as the red-clad legion from across the Midwest.  No baseball team means more to its city than the Cardinals do.  Few media environments are as gentle on its centerpiece team as St. Louis and vicinity.

Stan Musial has basked in the glow of his relationship with the fans for nearly fifty years since his retirement there.  Pujols is in every way the logical successor to Musial, in impact, in received reverence, and in identification with the city.  This is not something that’s transferable to a new location, where his accomplishments in his first eleven seasons – the three MVPs, the two World Series championships – will mean nothing, and he’ll be viewed wholly as a massively-paid superstar who’s a failure if he doesn’t take his team to a title.

Miami already has one of those.

Some free agents will always seek the brightest lights and loudest stages.  Others can use the process to obtain their full market value while remaining where they want to be.

The Cardinals’ money is worth more to Pujols than anyone else’s would be.  So long as it’s anywhere close to the highest outside offer, he should take it and stay.

Free agency can be a walk down the yellow-brick road, but it can also be the ruby slippers that bring you back home.

(published December 8, 2011, about seven hours before Pujols signed with the Angels)



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