Farewell, Albert Pujols?

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Depending on a few factors — among them the National League wild-card race and various powers of negotiation — Wednesday could be the most significant send-off for the St. Louis Cardinals since Stan Musial took his final swing (a base hit, of course) on September 29, 1963. If the Cardinals’ season ends in Houston (meaning St. Louis falls short of Atlanta for a playoff berth), we may have seen the great Albert Pujols in a Cardinal uniform for the last time.
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A free agent at season’s end, Pujols and his agent Dan Lozano are sure to field bids from interested teams that don’t play their home games at Busch Stadium. Having put up numbers over 11 seasons that no player in the history of the game can match, Pujols should land a new contract somewhere between $180 million and $250 million, depending on the length and average annual value of the deal. Complicating things somewhat will be the negotiations for another premium slugger, Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder. A leading candidate for this year’s National League MVP, Fielder is represented by agent Scott Boras, renowned for waiting as long as necessary to land the highest package for his clients. If Boras and Lozano choose to play a nine-figure game of stare-down, the Cardinals, Brewers, and any other interested franchises could be wondering where Pujols and Fielder will be playing on New Year’s Day.

What if Pujols leaves St. Louis? He’ll depart with a world-championship ring, three MVP trophies, fourth in franchise history in hits, and second (behind only Stan the Man) in home runs and RBIs. Wherever he chooses to continue his career, it’s hard to imagine the Pujols plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame bearing anything other than a St. Louis Cardinal hat. Hard to imagine any Cardinal ever wearing the number 5 again.

That said, if Pujols leaves St. Louis before (or right after) his 32nd birthday in January, it will be the most traumatic divorce in 120 years of Cardinal history. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was traded to the New York Giants after helping the Cardinals win their first World Series in 1926, but he yielded another future Hall of Famer, Frankie Frisch. Steve Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise is the worst trade in Cardinal history, but Carlton earned his Hall of Fame votes after the transaction. Established Cardinal greats have generally finished their careers in the shadow of the Arch: Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. If Pujols leaves, his membership jacket in the franchise’s club of legends will come in a different shade of red.

But I don’t think he’ll leave. It may be the most naïve supposition of my sportswriting career, but I believe Albert Pujols will stay in St. Louis out of sentiment. Hear me out on this.

When the Cardinals visited AutoZone Park in April 2009 for a pair of exhibition games before Opening Day, Pujols had on the shelf in his locker a framed photo of his kids. (He and his wife, Deidre, have four children.) This was a two-day stop in Memphis for the Cardinals, in transit from Florida to St. Louis. It would have been easy for Pujols to leave such a talisman in his bag, or at least in his hotel room. But there the frame was, prominently displayed, inscribed with “Number One Dad.”

Beyond his devotion as a father, Pujols has made caring for children with Down syndrome a life mission. His oldest daughter, Isabella, lives with the ailment. The Pujols Family Foundation was established in 2005 and the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome opened in 2009 in Chesterfield, Missouri.

What does all this mean when it comes to perhaps the biggest free agent in baseball history? It’s a matter of family roots, not just for the pending free agent, but for the family he cherishes — along with God — above anything else in his life. (Remember, God told Reggie White to play football in Green Bay. I’m sticking with family sentiment here.) Will Albert Pujols uproot all his family has established in and around St. Louis for an extra $30 million? An extra $40 million? What’s the price on a family’s roots in a town where no one named Pujols will ever have to buy a meal?

Again, this may be hopelessly naïve. Most athletes go where the cash piles highest. Shortly before signing an extension with the Cardinals last week, Lance Berkman was beautifully honest in telling reporters “It’s always about the money.” Maybe Albert Pujols spends the second half of his career in a Cubs uniform, or out west with the Angels. If the New York Yankees decide they want Pujols in pinstripes, they’ll find a way to shop Mark Teixera.

But I’m not buying it. The Cardinals need to stretch payroll as far as they can to retain this century’s Musial. I’m convinced when Pujols makes his decision, it will be in front of a picture frame and not a calculator.

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