When it gets ugly for Albert Pujols -- and it's going to get ugly for Albert Pujols -- he'll have himself to blame. Because it didn't have to be this way.
Pujols could have been Derek Jeter. He could have been Cal Ripken. He could have been Ernie Banks or Ryne Sandberg or, yes, Stan Musial.
|More on Angels' big day|
Instead he'll be Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez or Gary Sheffield, just another big-bopping mercenary playing out the string in a city he chose because it offered the biggest selection of his favorite color: green.
And if there's one thing sports fans don't have tolerance for, it's a mercenary who isn't earning his keep.
That day will come for Pujols. By signing this contract with the Angels, Pujols has guaranteed it. It's a 10-year deal worth more than $254 million, one of the biggest in U.S. sports history, and it comes with a full no-trade clause. Which means Pujols will be earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million -- close to $200,000 per game -- when he's 41 years old.
Any idea what Pujols will be hitting when he's 41? Me neither, but it won't be .334 with 41 home runs and 124 RBI, which is what he averaged for the first nine years of his career. In the last two years, his 10th and 11th season with St. Louis, Pujols' numbers dropped across the board. Average, power, RBI, OPS -- you name it. In 2011 he finished at .299, 37 home runs and 99 RBI. It was a fine season, but the worst of his career.
And now he has a decade to improve on it, with the Angels and their fans rightfully expecting him to produce like he did from 2001-09, not like he did in 2011. Only he won't be able to produce like he did from 2001-09. He might approach those numbers once or twice, maybe three or four times, but he turns 38 in 2018 -- and still will have four years left on his contract. The most expensive four years.
The least forgiving four years.
And it didn't have to be this way.
In St. Louis, Pujols would've had a free pass. Whether he was great or not great. Prime, fading, done -- didn't matter. Didn't matter the production, didn't matter the salary. Had Albert Pujols stayed in St. Louis, had he turned down bigger money elsewhere to finish his career in St. Louis (for more money than he could spend in five lifetimes), they would have loved him unconditionally, the way other towns have loved their lifelong superstars, the way Kansas City loved George Brett even as he hit .255, .285 and .266 in his final three years as a Royal.
St. Louis would have loved Pujols the way Chicago loved Ernie Banks, even as he hit .193 at age 40, or the way Baltimore loved Cal Ripken as his batting average was plummeting more than 100 points from age 38 to 40. In the final season of his Hall of Fame career, Ripken hit .239 with 14 home runs in 516 plate appearances. That's not Cooperstown, that's a joke -- but they weren't laughing in Baltimore. They weren't booing, either. Boo Cal Ripken? In Baltimore? He's an icon in Baltimore.
That would be like booing Jeter in New York or Yastrzemski in Boston or Musial in St. Louis, where for 15 years The Man hit .341 and averaged 26 home runs and 104 RBI. In his final five years, his production sank to .283 with 15 homers and 63 RBI. You think they were booing in St. Louis? Of course not. Stan Musial was everything to St. Louis.
Musial was what Albert Pujols could have been, would have been had he not pilfered every last penny from the Angels. More power to Pujols, of course. It's not what I would have chosen -- I'm thinking that somehow, some way, my family and I could have made do on the $220 million that St. Louis was offering him over 10 years -- but Pujols was free to make his own choice.
And I'm free to explain just how badly that choice will backfire on him.
It's not just what will happen late in his career, when Pujols turns 40 -- or maybe 45; there are scouts who believe he was born in the 1970s, not 1980 -- but what will happen as soon as he hits a prolonged slump. Pujols just signed for A-Rod money, and A-Rod gets no slack from Yankees fans. Same goes for Pujols when he starts another season the way he started 2011, hitting .233 in early May and languishing 50 points below his career batting average into August. Fans in L.A. will see his batting average on the scoreboard and they'll boo. That's what fans do, especially to players who make about $60,000 per plate appearance and who spend an evening at the ballpark striking out twice and grounding into a double play. That's $180,000, down the tubes.
Which rhymes with boos.
This is the future for Albert Pujols, just as it's the future for all but baseball's immortals. Pujols could have been one of those, but he sold his soul. At least he got top dollar for it.