ST. LOUIS -- The flashbulbs were the first I saw of it, and they didn't come until the seventh inning of the seventh game of the 2011 World Series. For all the media chatter, all the TV yammering from Buck and McCarver about the possible end of the Albert Pujols era in St. Louis, the seventh inning Friday night was the first time in this World Series that Cardinals fans publicly acknowledged the gravity of the situation.
People wanted one last picture of the man who replaced The Man. Just in case he leaves.
Well, let me be on record as saying that this most glorious night in Cardinals history -- the night a 6-2 victory in Game 7 gave this baseball city its 11th World Series title -- wasn't the last time St. Louis will see Pujols at Busch Stadium. And I'm not talking about interleague play or something even more obscene, like a series with the Cubs. Pujols won't be back next year with New York or Chicago.
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He'll be back with the Cardinals. That's my story and I'm sticking to it, and not just because it feels good to write it. Though it does. It feels good to believe there's an athlete out there who won't make one final money grab, who won't try to shove every dollar he can into pockets that are already bulging in an unseemly way. Pujols could play the rest of his career for free and still be set for his life. His kids would be set for life. Their kids. Maybe even their kids, too. Pujols has made that much money, and I don't begrudge him his bucks.
But I don't think he'll go for whatever the Cubs or Yankees or Blue Jays or anyone else offers. I don't see it, because Pujols isn't that guy.
He's not LeBron James, I'm saying.
LeBron fooled us, but in hindsight that was our fault. We just weren't paying attention to the signs that LeBron was style over substance, legend over loyalty. Can't be a legend in Cleveland, you know. He followed the flashbulbs to Miami, but enough about him. LeBron makes an appearance in this story only to show what Albert Pujols is not, although the two do have something in common. Pujols is the closest thing baseball has to LeBron, an all-time great talent, maybe not the best player ever but someone with the skills and numbers to belong somewhere in the conversation.
But Pujols isn't into style over substance. Legend? He prefers loyalty. It might look like some twisted logic, but I'm telling you that his notion of loyalty is why he called off negotiating sessions with the Cardinals earlier this season. He was so perturbed by what he perceived as the Cardinals' lack of loyalty that he stopped negotiations. Plus he wanted to focus on the season out of loyalty to the rest of the clubhouse, to put the distraction of his next contract on hold. People in the media, myself included, didn't think it would work. We thought his unclear status would hang over the team all year, detract from the focus in the clubhouse, deny this team from reaching its potential.
Didn't happen, obviously.
Pujols and his teammates were so locked into the moment, they still weren't talking about his future after winning Game 7. Asked about the idea of playing in another uniform next season, Pujols gently chastised the questioner, telling him: "I don't think that's a question right now that you should ask."
His teammates weren't asking him, either. Whereas Prince Fielder's buddies in Milwaukee made the Brewers' final postseason loss this season an awkward moment -- coming by his locker to hug him for the last time, perhaps, as teammates -- none of the Cardinals did that with Pujols on Friday night. They poured champagne on his goggled head, but they didn't say goodbye. Longtime teammate Jim Edmonds, who brought his son into the clubhouse area to hug Pujols, didn't ask for a hint on the future. He hugged Pujols, kidding him not to get his champagne stink on Edmonds' sharp suit, and then left. Friday night wasn't the time to think about goodbyes.
I don't think that time is coming. Not until he makes like the last legend to have such a combo-hold on this city and this game, Stan "The Man" Musial, and retires as a Cardinal. He's a native of the Dominican Republic but he's a St. Louis guy now, a St. Louis guy through and through. His family tried to settle in New York, but they left after teenaged Albert witnessed a shooting and settled in ... Missouri. Funny how that works, right? The Cardinals drafted Pujols, and here he is, a man of 31 with a wife and four kids and a non-profit devoted to faith and family, and a local wellness center in his name for adults with Down syndrome. His oldest daughter -- his wife's daughter, but now his daughter too -- has Down syndrome.
He's a different breed, Albert Pujols. And he's an immeasurable asset to the Cardinals. Whatever anyone else offers -- the Cubs, Blue Jays, anyone -- the Cardinals will come as close as possible to match it. They have to. And even if someone else offers Pujols the craziest contract in baseball history, driving up the price and tying the Cardinals' financial hands, Pujols has to stay. And he has to know it.
These two need each other, this historic franchise and this historic player. Only one team has been to the World Series three times since 2004, did you know that? Not the Yankees. Not the Red Sox.
Did you know that?
I guarantee you, Pujols knows that.
"This is what you play for," Pujols said, speaking of World Series rings -- not individual numbers. "I kept saying all year, it's really special to be around a great group of guys like this. I thank God to give me another opportunity to wear this uniform."
And now, a few words about sabermetrics. Why? Because I can. And because it seems instructive to point out, at this moment, that Pujols had a WAR of 5.4 -- which means that, over the course of the 2011 season, he was worth 5.4 extra victories to the Cardinals. That places him 27th in baseball, according to FanGraphs.com. Which tells you how flawed the WAR computation is.
WAR doesn't show what Pujols did to help the Cardinals win Game 7, for example. And he did so much, despite a box score (or a WAR score) that won't say it. Pujols was 0 for 2, never hitting the ball out of the infield and striking out in the seventh with flashbulbs exploding. But he was directly responsible for three of the Cardinals' six runs simply from reputation. His two-out walk in the first led to a two-run rally. David Freese got the RBI, but Pujols got it started. The Rangers were scared to pitch to him again in the fifth, avoiding the heart of the plate to the point that Scott Feldman hit him with a pitch. That contributed to another two-run rally. Pujols scored in both innings, not that runs scored matters to some folks.
And then, Allen Craig's home run in the third. Pujols was standing in the on-deck circle, so according to WAR he had nothing to do with it. But in reality, he had a lot to do with it. Not everything, no. Craig swung the damn bat, I realize. But he got a pitch to hit because of Pujols.
The count on Craig was 3-2, and rather than risk walking the batter ahead of the great Pujols -- forcing Texas to pitch to him -- Rangers starter Matt Harrison grooved a fastball that Craig blasted for his third home run of the series, and his second hitting ahead of Pujols. That's what happens to players who hit ahead of Pujols. They get pitches to hit. So says another guy who has hit ahead of Pujols this season, Skip Schumaker.
"Big difference," Schumaker said between hitting in front of Pujols and anyone else. "Usually they're not going to walk you, because they don't want that base to be occupied, and that means they have to pitch to him. It's a different spot in the lineup. It's usually a place where Tony puts guys to get hot during the season because they see more pitches to hit."
It's a place Tony puts guys to get hot.
That's what Pujols does. Well, that -- and an average season of .328 with 40 home runs, 121 RBI and a 1.037 OPS.
So whatever Pujols wants, St. Louis has to pay the man. They have to overpay him, and I think they will. Longtime general manager Jim Bowden was saying in the press box before Game 7 that some franchise will overpay Pujols in his next contract -- and that he'd overpay Pujols himself, if it was his check to write. Bowden was saying he'd give Pujols too much money in the years toward the end of his contract, because the financial hit way down the road will have been paid for, and then some, by the five or six salad years coming up.
Salad years that could, and probably will, look a lot like 2011. When the best player in baseball, the best pure hitter of the last half-century, continues to put up monster offensive numbers and win Gold Gloves and help the batters around him get hot and stay hot.
Pujols ain't leaving.
He's not that superficial. And the Cardinals aren't that stupid.