Minute with Meltdown: Albert Pujols: The Delightful Headache

Posted on October 26, 2011

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By Matt Melton

There is not much in the way of an appetizing selection when it comes to one’s options at the hometown sports buffet in St. Louis. As I detailed last week, Missouri is currently the worst sports state in America, and in spite of how good things seem to be for everyone else in the Union, the teams’ performances here in STL are just as liable for said designation.

The Rams are still winless, although a team with a legitimate franchise QB (Sam Bradford) and RB (Steven Jackson) will always be a threat. And now that Brandon Lloyd (WR) is wearing the painted horns, wins are to be expected. The Blues have been quite choppy to start the season, and may have a goalie controversy brewing on the home ice. However, going back to last season with the acquisition of Chris Stewart & Kevin Shattenkirk in the Erik Johnson trade, and signing veteran free agents Jason Arnott & Jamie Langenbrunner in the offseason, the Blues are inching closer to viability in the Western Conference. Now, if only David Perron can return after more than a year away from the game because of concussion-related symptoms.

While the Rams and Blues offer enticing long-term options for St. Louis fans, you’ve got to eat today to survive, and for that we have the Cardinals. The Redbirds are providing us a solid three squares a day. You’ve got a bowl of Motte-O-Meal for breakfast to get you started in the morning, raspberry-glazed Carp(enter) over lunch, and a grizzly Puma steak for dinner. The Cardinals are providing such a bountiful harvest this season that the city of St. Louis is able to store leftovers in the coffer. As the Post-Dispatch reported last week, the city generated enough revenue from the team’s postseason run that they canceled the mandatory unpaid three-week furloughs city employees were facing. The Cardinals have given our local governments the ability to do what they were designed to do – survive alone on the working man’s tax dollar.

That brings me to this week’s impasse – I have a problem with Albert Pujols, and the delightful headache he is giving us baseball fans in St. Louis. Everyone knows that Pujols’ services are going to be on the block very shortly, and it just so happens that the Christmas shopping season is right around the corner. So, what do you give to the guy who has everything? What do you give to the guy with nine All-Star selections, six Silver Sluggers, three MVP awards (with three 2nd place finishes), two gloves made of gold, and an expiring contract? What do you give to the guy who averages more than 40 home runs, 125 RBIs and 120 Runs a season; or to the guy who has the highest active career batting average (.328) in the game, and a career OPS that ranks 6th all time in MLB history? What do you give to the guy who just had the single best game in World Series history and literally has had the perfect 11-year start to their professional career? How do you show your appreciation to a guy who could quit the game today and walk into Cooperstown without even needing to call for a vote? It’s frustratingly simple: you give him money, lots and lots of money. You give him the pie in the sky. It’s as simple as quoting Dwight K. Schrute from The Office: “Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-ka-ching!”

I know this.  Every Cardinals fan knows this. That means Cardinals’ management also knows this, right? I have to imagine that every time Pujols finds a new page in the record book to rewrite, that Bill DeWitt and the rest of the Cardinals’ ownership shift their weight, clinch their bottoms and let out a slight groan, as they come closer to deciding how to value the invaluable. How many times does Pujols have to take a mediocre, afterthought of a team to the World Series? Twice, it seems, is the answer. The Cardinals franchise can learn that the easy way or the hard. The problem is that it will be us fans who take the fall. If Pujols doesn’t return to the Cardinals, we will get an earful from management about how the asking price was too high, and how the team feels the money is better spent to improve other parts of the team. Lance Berkman is already signed, and Allen Craig has shown he is worthy of an everyday spot in the outfield, so maybe Plan B for 2012 has been Plan A all along. If Pujols does return, the Redbird Nation will be overjoyed, and we will show our gratitude by paying what will surely be hikes in everything from tickets to hot dogs. Think we won’t see $12 beers?  I bet we will. $9 Cracker Jacks? You bet. Personal Seat Licenses on standing room only tickets? That’s going a bit overboard, but now you’re thinking creatively. Call it the Pujols Tax, and there isn’t a filibuster in the world that can stop it.

I respect the team for giving an arbitration eligible 24-year old Pujols, with only three years of experience, a contract in 2004 that ended up being for eight years and worth $116 million. That was an unnecessary gamble at the time and I admire the team for having the cojones and the foresight to see the potential value and make it happen. But the Cardinals have been playing with house money on that deal since about 2006. According to Fangraphs.com, Pujols’ statistics since the start of the 2004 season have actually been worth about $253 million ($31.6 million per). Cardinals’ management must be swallowing aspirins by the bottle knowing that this day is here. The pounding has become incessant. The team has enjoyed the party Pujols has brought with him over the years, but no matter how this ends – when the music stops, when the libations are tapped and when tomorrow becomes today, the hangover will begin, and it will be the fans that are left with the memories and the delightful headaches.