And then Albert came along. Just one year and one Bobby Bonilla injury removed from his professional debut as a 13th round draft pick, Pujols was in the starting lineup and lighting up the National League. He hit for average. He hit for power. He got on base. He eventually learned to play a very good first base. For the first time, St. Louis fans saw a player and thought, "this could be the guy who tops Musial."
The accolades came. The MVPs (three of them, same as Musial), the All Star appearances, the Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves, the home runs and hits and RBIs; all of them flocked to Pujols' Baseball-Reference page like moths to Matt Holliday's ear.
The wins followed. Led by Pujols' success, the team made the playoffs 7 out of 11 seasons, winning 3 pennants and 2 World Series along the way. From 2001-2011, only the high-spending Yankees and Red Sox won more games than did Pujols' Cardinals. Pujols was the best player in the game, a superstar of whose order the franchise had not seen in decades. Fans watched in awe and wondered how high his career would stack by the time it ended.
Pujols was, over his 11 years with St. Louis, remarkably similar to Musial when Musial was at his best. Compare Pujols’ career in St. Louis to Musial’s best 11 year stretch (1943-54):
In both traditional counting totals and more sabermetric evaluations, the two come up as near equals. Musial got on base a bit better (in an environment where hitters got on base more than they do today) while Pujols hit for more power (in an environment where hitters hit for more power than they did in Musial’s day). The two were comparable fielders, good for their position, but at the weak end of the fielding spectrum.
Musial rates slightly better in both Baseball-Reference’s and FanGraphs’ implementations of WAR, but they are close enough that which one you would pick will largely depend on how you approach the different eras (i.e. how you want to adjust for things like integration, expansion, population growth, international development, improved scouting, the war years, etc). They’re close enough that it would reasonable to take the position that no Cardinal fan has ever seen one of their own play at a higher level than Pujols has over his 11 years with the team, not even Musial. It’s not a slam-dunk position; maybe you still take Musial. But, for the first time since Musial retired, you’d probably at least have to think about it.
Watching Pujols play ignited Cardinal fans like watching Musial did, and we loved every minute of it. Naturally, we wanted that to continue. We wanted another all-time great to stay a career Cardinal. Then, out of nowhere, the report swept in from the winter meetings that Pujols had signed with the Angels. No build up, nothing. No one had even talked about the Angels in the weeks of negotiating that led off the offseason. Just like that, he was gone.
Pujols' decision to sign with Los Angeles of Anaheim hit St. Louis fans hard. It stirred up questions and debates about things like loyalty, honesty, and legacy, and how all of these apply, uniquely or otherwise, to the world of sports. There is one central issue that kept cropping up in each of these discussions, a burr in the civil discourse of the fandom, a taboo in our personal lives but a fascination in those of celebrities: money. It all came back to the money, and at the heart of the money issue as it relates to the Pujols/St. Louis-split was a quote from spring training 2009:
"People from other teams want to play in St. Louis and they're jealous that we're in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 or $4 more million a year? It's not about the money. I already got my money. It's about winning and that's it."
The quote comes from a story beat writer Matthew Leach ran on MLB.com in February, 2009, when Pujols still had 3 years left on his contract with St. Louis. Pujols was asked about the possibility of a contract extension, and, just like a month earlier when he was asked the same question at the team's official offseason fan event, there was nothing new to report. So instead of talking about the contract negotiation status quo, Pujols talked about the fans. He talked about how great St. Louis was, how he loved the city, how would love to stay in St. Louis.
He also talked about the reality of a decision not yet made, that free agency might well mean another city. He talked about a decision years away and about figuring things out when it got to that point. He talked about a city that had embraced him and his family, and how no other city could match that reception, but that, if it came down to it, he felt wherever he went they would "open the door" to him in the same way.
He also talked about money. He talked about money, how it wasn't the deciding factor, and how winning trumped everything. Fans seized on the quote as some kind of promise that he wouldn't leave the team for more money elsewhere, and when he did, they felt betrayed. The Angels' offer of $240m, coincidentally, was roughly $3-$4m per year more than reports of the Cardinals' offer. That the numbers seemed to match up so perfectly only fueled the high emotions fans felt at Albert's departure.
Of course, without knowing the specifics of the Cardinals' offer, it's impossible to make more than superficial comparisons. Pujols' previous contract with St. Louis included significant interest-free deferrals ($3m per year for the final five years of the deal, money which won't be paid off until 2029): if their latest offer included similar deferrals, that could significantly drop the practical value of the deal. L.A. of A.'s offer is backloaded, which basically acts as relatively short-term deferrals, but the value-diminishing effect of that contract structure is much less pronounced than the long-term deferrals on the recently concluded contract. The Angels' offer also includes a $10m personal services contract on top of the playing contract, as well as up to $10m in milestone bonuses (plus the typical award bonuses). Not to mention we don't know more than a vague estimate of the Cardinals' offer, which may or may not be accurate. All in all, it is entirely possible the difference in monetary value between what St. Louis offered and what Albert got well exceeded $4m per year.
As it is, we will probably never know precisely how much money Pujols left St. Louis over. Even more than that, though, the presumption that he left over money is a simplification of the issue. The extra tens-of-millions coming from Orange County no doubt played a role in Albert's decision, but there were certainly other factors involved as well. To hold up the $3-4m figure from a quote three years ago as a hard standard that Albert had promised not to leave St. Louis over ignores the many factors that go into such a decision.
Albert, like any athlete facing free agency, made a decision with far-reaching consequences for both his life and his career. He was not only choosing how much money he would make and where he would play, but where he and his family would live, who he would work for and with, what media and fans he would deal with day in and day out, what kind of chances he would have of winning divisions, pennants, and titles, what trainers and doctors treat him, what positions he might play, and probably countless other things. Every little facet of life, things like the friends and neighbors your family makes and the schools and doctors and dentists your kids attend and see, can be affected by a decision like that.
For Albert, all those little things were that much bigger, because it's the next 10 years of his life. Granted, most of those little things are impossible to account for in advance, but they are there, and all of those things are going to add up when you start thinking about them. We can only pretend to know how much each factor weighed on Albert's mind when he uttered the $3-$4m figure in front of a group of reporters 3 years ago, and we can only pretend to know how much each factor weighed on Albert's mind when he signed with the Angels this past offseason.
What we can be pretty sure of is that money was not the only factor in Albert's decision, and that $3-4m more per year from the Angels is not the same as if the same $3-4m came from some other club, or if it came from a larger St. Louis offer. It would be impossible, even for Albert, to put an exact figure on how much money it would take to draw him away from St. Louis, because that figure is going to depend on the team and on the situation. The Marlins allegedly had an even larger offer on the table, potentially something like $60-$70m more than than the Cardinals' offer, and Pujols turned it down.
Albert expressed an attachment to St. Louis that he valued highly three years ago. He said it would take more than just money (or, at the very least, a whole lot of money) to pry him away from that situation. I don't know how much he valued that particular attachment; maybe $3-4m was an accurate assessment, or maybe it was just a figure he threw out offhand to express the sentiment that the decision was about more than money, and that St. Louis was a good situation for him and his family. Either way seems reasonable enough. And either way, maybe something changed over the last three years. Maybe front office changes, or managerial/coaching changes, or player personnel changes, or whatever soured Albert's situation in St. Louis just a little bit. I don't know. Maybe they didn't. Maybe a new situation with the Angels emerged that Albert felt especially comfortable with, and that was the added factor beyond the money that made the difference. Pujols has at least discussed the Angels' ownership and their negotiations quite warmly.
We can be pretty sure that winning was a major factor in Pujols' decision. That was the one thing he emphasized in the 2009 quote. Some Cardinal fans felt that the World Series run in 2011 was enough to satisfy that need, or that the long-term deal to lock up Holliday showed the kind of commitment Pujols was looking for. Certainly, the Cardinals have been one of the most successful franchises in the league over Albert's tenure, and their prospects for the future look reasonably bright. That does not mean, however, that the Cardinals give Pujols the best chance of winning over the next ten years.
I think it would be entirely reasonable, looking forward, for Albert to have seen a better chance of winning with the Angels than the Cardinals. Coming into this season, the Angels probably looked to have the stronger roster of the two. Perhaps more importantly for their long-term prospects, given the amount of turnaround both teams are going to see over the life of Albert's contract, the Angels have shown a higher capacity, and possibly a higher willingness, to spend. They've got a huge new TV deal to help them continue to do so at even higher levels. They've got a potential long-term superstar (currently on the cheap) in Mike Trout. They've had consistent success over the past decade, and while St. Louis has as well, St. Louis will no longer have the huge advantage of having the game's best player signed to an extremely team-friendly deal.
I'm not saying it's a guarantee the Angels win more, but if you had to bet on it, I think a lot of people would bet on the Angels. As fans, we can talk up our favourite team and belabor point after point as to why our team will win and the other team won't. The Angels aren't flawless. They recently traded Mike Napoli for the right to pay Vernon Wells $81m to take up an OF spot (a deal which, amazingly, keeps getting worse; recent fallout includes having to eat Bobby Abreu's contract, having trouble getting both Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos in the lineup, and the Texas Rangers having Mike Napoli). The Angels won fewer games than the Cardinals over the last couple years. The Cardinals have won more World Series in the past six years than the Angels have won ever.
Those are easy points to make if you want to support a position in favour of St. Louis. They are easy, however, because we have nothing on the table when we make them. We don't have to figure out what any of that actually means for projecting future results for them to work in our barroom arguments. If you had to bet on it, though, then you start to care what all those points actually mean, and you start seeing how all those things that sound convincing might be a bit thin.
And that's fine. Fans don't need to put their money where their mouths are to enjoy a good argument. They don't need to care how the rhetoric translates to real life results. For a player deciding where he's going to spend the rest of his career, however, it's different. He has to put all his chips on the table and go all in with a team. Albert had to make that bet, and at that point there's a lot more to it than a miraculous World Series run and having another star locked up being good enough. If you want to win above all else, and you see a better chance elsewhere, you've got to think about it. If there's a price it will take to leave St. Louis, that price goes down when you see that chance to win somewhere else.
All that is to say that Albert's decision was a complicated one with many factors in play. We can't expect to know or understand all of them. We can't simplify it to just "he left over money" as if that's all there is to it. We can recognize that money was a factor, as it always is, and maybe speculate as to how much of a factor, but we still have to recognize that there were other factors that were all going to affect the price of signing Pujols.
It's easy to latch onto the figures from the 2009 quote and question Pujols' sincerity, even his honesty. Many fans have done so. Once we can accept that money was not the only factor, though, those questions have to be reevaluated, because it then follows that there is no set price we can hold against Pujols. $3-4m per year might be enough to leave for one situation while $6-7m isn't enough to leave for another (like, say, I don’t know, this one). It would be naive to think that there is a simple threshold such that Pujols can list off a dollar figure in Spring Training that is going to apply to every situation three years later. Unfortunately, that is the interpretation many of Albert's critics have taken in using his words against him.
Maybe some of that is Albert's fault for not being more candid about all the factors involved in his decision. Maybe it's his fault for not reiterating that he was not ready to sign an extension at that point and that there was no way he could possibly describe fully the decision he faced three years down the road. Maybe it's his fault for offering anything of substance at all and not defaulting to the proven cliches about loving the fans and the city and hoping he and the team could work something out and just leaving it at that without expounding any further.
When I say those are cliches, by the way, I don't mean to suggest that Albert in any way lacked sincerity in expressing those sentiments. I mean that there are safe ways of saying things that athletes learn in order to keep, as much as possible, from providing ammunition to critics, be they in the opposing clubhouse or the stands or the media or whatever. It's just like that scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner is teaching Tim Robbins the ropes and has him write down all these tired quotes that they both know are stupid.
MLB Network ran a segment a while back where they asked MLB players about the dumbest baseball cliches. They'd ask a guy and he'd give some cliche and then laugh about how dumb it was and how it made no sense, and then they'd cut to a montage of a dozen players or managers repeating the quote verbatim. Then they asked Nick Swisher, and he went on about how dumb some cliche was, and then they cut to footage of him repeating it verbatim.
The players know those things lack substance and can be meaningless or downright dumb, but it's part of the game they play. They do it because people hang on their every word when they are in front of a microphone or camera, and those people are often not going to stop and think about what the athlete actually meant by what he said. They will seize on anything they can fit to a narrative. The athlete's words get filtered through the cuts reporters and editors make in presenting them to the public, and then further filtered through the public's interests and interpretations. It becomes irrelevant what the athlete was actually communicating if either the media or the public sees a story to be interpreted within the particular verbiage.
And so it was that Albert's words were taken not as a glimpse into a complicated decision-making process where things like fan appreciation and his attachment to the city made a real, monetary difference, but as a firm commitment to be breached only at the cost of his integrity. The narrative fans wanted was a pledge to their franchise, a promise that money didn't matter no matter what, that simply by virtue of having great fans and being competitive, the team was immune to the risks of underbidding the market by even tens of millions.
Albert's cautious optimism and his willingness to move on if no deal were to be reached fell away as context. The uncertainty of three years and the unknowable set of alternatives that necessarily clouded whatever certainties Albert might be able to offer failed to deter a hard-commitment interpretation of the dollar figure portion of Albert's statement. Somewhere between the time Albert spoke the words and the time the public had finished processing the report, the meaning had twisted, at least in the minds of some, into support for the narrative. When the narrative collapsed three years later, it was not what Albert had communicated that mattered, but what the public had come to understand. Maybe, just maybe, that doesn't mean Albert lied to us. Maybe we just misinterpreted a statement that was more complex than we wanted it to be.
The comparisons to Musial were inevitable. Other than Hornsby way back in the 1920s, no one in Cardinal history has come close to creating the legacy that both Musial and Pujols have. My father’s heroes, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, fell short (though Gibson probably came the closest of anyone). My own hero, Ozzie Smith, fell short. They were first-ballot Hall of Famers, but they weren’t Musial, and they weren't Pujols. For Cardinal fans, there is no one to compare to Pujols but Musial. When Pujols left still at the top of the game, it was like losing Stan Musial. Except that Musial never left, and that point of contrast has become the background for Pujols’ legacy in St. Louis.
Musial represents a different era of Major League baseball. The reserve clause was still in full effect, which meant that once a player signed with a team, that team controlled his rights for the rest of his career. Players were unable to negotiate with other teams or shop their services around, nor did they have any say in where they played the remainder of their careers. The choices were to sign the contract the club offered or to not play. The fact that Musial spent his whole career as a Cardinal had little to do with his own opinion on the matter, but rather with the club's decision never to trade or sell his rights.
That's not to say Musial didn't cherish being a Cardinal. By all accounts, he did and still does. It just didn't really affect his tenure in St. Louis. Players who would have jumped at the chance to negotiate with other teams (be it for more money, preferred location, whatever) also stayed with their teams for life, and players who loved playing for their teams and would have never wanted to leave were traded and went off to play elsewhere. It wasn't their choice, other than to simply play or not play; it was the team's alone.
This system is, of course, now considered illegal. To compare Albert's departure to that standard is not to reflect on his decision, because that is holding him against a standard where he has no decision. Musial's career on the field makes an excellent barometer for Cardinal fans to measure Pujols against, but the decision to sign with Los Angeles of Anaheim is so far removed from the circumstances of Musial's career that there is no way to gain any understanding of Pujols' decision in that context. It's not helpful, and criticizing Albert's decision in light of Musial's career in St. Louis flirts with some unsavory undertones of the reserve clause and free agency, because those are the necessary contexts framing their separate paths through St. Louis.
The closest thing Musial got to an opportunity to leave St. Louis as a free agent came in 1946, when Jorge Pasquel, president of the Mexican league, was throwing money at American players to try to lure them south of the border. Pasquel offered Musial $25k a year for five years plus a $50k bonus if he would sign with the Mexican league. At the time, Musial was signed with St. Louis for $13,500. While I have seen Cardinal fans refer to Musial's dismissal of Pasquel's offer as a counter to Pujols' acceptance of the Angels' offer, offering the two as analogs severely misplaces the context of Musial's situation (for one, Pujols was not under contract with the Cardinals like Musial was, but for broader reasons as well).
The salary Pasquel was offering wasn't unheard of in 1946 (various sources cite Hank Greenberg's salary that year as $55k-75k, for example, and Musial himself would go on to make more money playing his next five seasons for the Cardinals than what Pasquel had offered), but the multi-year deal was. When Musial turned Pasquel down, it was more the security of a long-term deal than the higher annual salary he was passing up. In exchange for that security, however, Musial would have had to move his young family out of the country and considerably worsen their living conditions as well as his playing and traveling conditions. Even the security Pasquel's deal offered was not necessarily a selling point, as leaving an established franchise in the National League for an upstart league trying to rapidly expand presented plenty of its own risks.
As it turned out, nearly all of the Major Leaguers who jumped ship to Mexico ended up leaving the new league within a year. Vern Stephens, the biggest star to sign with Pasquel, left almost immediately after his Mexican debut. A 1966 SI article on the affair quoted Stephens as saying, "I could see that the thing wasn't going to work out financially. It was a wonderful dream but the people Pasquel was appealing to couldn't afford it, no way. I knew that when I wanted the $250,000 it wouldn't be there—or I couldn't get it."
The same article details a league where the domestic players who made up most of the league were paid a small fraction of what was being offered to the American conquests. The fields and equipment were well below Major Leagues standards. One field even featured a railroad line in the outfield. Planes landed in unpaved pastures and buses chugged over narrow mountain roads. The league had never before sustained the salaries Pasquel was offering, and the players were not eager to stick around to test just how long it could do so.
The security that would have made the Mexican offer more attractive than staying in the Majors quickly evaporated. Additionally, the players who had left (save for Stephens, since he reported back so soon after leaving) were banned from the Majors for five years (though the ban was overturned in 1949 when MLB faced losing its antitrust exemption in court). The risks of taking Pasquel’s offer were high, too high for any of the really big stars (Musial, Ted Williams, Phil Rizutto, etc) to bite on it and walk out on their jobs in the Majors.
Today, the persistent remnants of the reserve clause remain under the auspices of a collectively bargained agreement, though most of the bite has been hammered out of the clause. Thanks in large part to Marvin Miller's leadership (and to the continuation of his work by the union), the players have won key limitations on the reserve clause. Most importantly, players are now guaranteed a minimum salary that teams can't undercut, an expiration of the reserve clause after six years of Major League service (as well as additional restrictions on the clause for minor league veterans), and salary arbitration for veterans in their final few years subjected to the clause. Because of these restrictions, the clause would be unrecognizable to players of Musial's era, and even players who never qualify for free agency can end their careers in better financial shape than long-term stars under the old rules.
Still, the clause is there, binding players to the team that drafted them well into their careers (and, for most players who make the Majors, their whole careers). The club controls a player's minor league development and if or when he makes the show (the Rule 5 draft puts some restrictions on how long a team can keep a player in the minors if another team wants him in the Majors, but only after 3-4 years of minor league service, and teams can avoid the Rule 5 draft by placing a player on the 40-man roster, which buys them up to another three years of controlling a player in the minors). Players who are good enough to play in the Majors can be kept in the minors if the team thinks it will benefit them to hold back the player's service time.
After making the Majors, the player is issued a contract completely on the team's terms, which usually means something close to the league minimum, for his first three years. The only option he has for leveraging his value into a higher salary is to sign away future years at a steep discount (see, for example, Evan Longoria or Matt Moore in Tampa). This is much like how the old reserve clause worked, except that the minimum salary guarantees that while a player like Pujols is paid less than bench players or mop-up relievers for a few years, he still makes more than the vast majority of working Americans. Which isn't so bad, but keep in mind that while the player is making hundreds of thousands off of his talents, his team is making millions.
After those first three years in the Majors, a player remains bound to his team for another three years, but finally wins the right to have his salary determined by his performance via salary arbitration. Generally, players still make less in arbitration than comparably skilled free agents (TangoTiger's rule of thumb is that players get about 40%, 60%, and 80% of their free agent value in their three arbitration years respectively), but they can get substantial raises from the near-minimum salaries they got before.
Finally, if a player is good enough and healthy enough to still be around after six years, he can become a free agent and sign with a team of his choosing (unless he signed away some of his free agent years in order to leverage his talent into a higher salary during his club-controlled years). For the first time, the issue of loyalty to his team becomes a factor for consideration; he can either stay with the team that has employed him for years, or he can shop his services to another team. What exactly, though, does loyalty to the team represent?
For the duration of the player's career, he has had no choice in where he plays, not even in the original team he signed for (at least for domestic players who are selected through the draft; international free agents do get an initial choice). He has simply been assigned to an organization and then told where to play and for how much for his whole career, and his only alternative option was to decline the offer and recuse himself from professional baseball. That said, that organization has identified the player's talent and given him an opportunity in professional baseball, spent time and resources developing his talent, and paid him handsomely for 6 years in the Majors (and paid him meagerly for however many years in the minors). That's a lot to be thankful for.
For most players good enough to make the Majors and stick, though, that's an opportunity several teams would have gladly given him. A lot of those players would have benefited had they been allowed to negotiate with any team and select the best situation for themselves. By restricting amateurs' opportunities via the draft and then controlling their rights through the neo-reserve-clause, teams are able to put fewer resources toward amateur talent and derive more benefit from those players relative to what the players would get in a free market system. As much as successful players benefit from being given an opportunity at all, the team benefits just as much.
By the time a player reaches free agency, he's made millions of dollars in salary. Again, however, the team has made much more than this off of his services. Teams get production from these players for much less than they are willing to pay for it on the open market (i.e. free agency). While a player may well appreciate what he has made working for his team, that benefit is more than repaid in the profits he has in turn earned for his team by giving them production at costs well below market rates. Team and player are in a mutually beneficial situation, with the team gaining as much or more than the player and holding all of the control. After all, for all the money Albert Pujols is making off of his career in baseball, when he retires, if Bill Dewitt were to put the Cardinals up for sale, Pujols is not going to have nearly enough money to buy the team. The asset he and other players have helped build for the owners is worth far more than any of them is ever going to see.
For all the benefits teams gain from these players, they are not always so eager to show loyalty the other way. Teams regularly trade players whenever they see an opportunity to better the club or option the player to the minors when they struggle. Players are rarely if ever given market-rate deals by clubs before it is necessary. The teams act on their own behalf, not on a sense of loyalty to the player. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with a team looking out for itself and doing what it can to stay as competitive and/or profitable as possible. The same is to be expected of the players as well, however, once they finally earn that opportunity.
I'm not saying this is a bad deal for the players, either. This is what their union has bargained for. The excess value that players give up to teams for those first six years is made up for by the huge deals they get as free agents, where teams are spending the big bucks they are saving on young players. The players give up a lot of value in their club-controlled years in exchange for the high value of free agency, and the teams accept paying huge free agent deals in exchange for getting so much control over players for several years into their careers.
When players cash in on the big payday, they are just collecting on their share of the deal. Were players to regularly defer to their old teams out of loyalty and not cash in on free agency, though, that would be a bad deal for the players. They would just be conceding all that control to teams through their first 6 years in the Majors (which, for most players, is their full career) for nothing, and they would be rewarding teams with loyalty for the time the team benefits from player the most.
Maybe it's not the teams that players owe loyalty to, though. Maybe it's the fans, the ones who pay the high ticket prices and buy the $8 beers that pay for those salaries. The fans put a lot into the team, emotionally and financially, that turn the players into highly paid stars. Fans show up to root for the players, buy their jerseys, and embrace them as heroes. It's hard for fans to put so much into following a player for years and then watch him go elsewhere. If these fans want to see the player stay, don't players owe it to them to work out a hometown deal to stay put?
Putting it like that is basically just taking the same player vs team issue and rephrasing it as player vs fan. The team is also making millions off of the fans, and if the fans want to see the same stars stick around, the teams are just as capable of sweetening their offer to keep a player as the player is of giving a discount to stay. It's just as easy for billionaires owners to give up the extra cash as it is for millionaire players to do so.
If the fans just want to see continuity with the stars they are rooting for, there is no reason to put the onus on the player and not the team to show that loyalty to the fans. That is typically not all the fans want, though. Fans want to see their team win, no matter what players they use to do it. Fans turn up at the gate when the wins are there, and they stay away when they aren't.
Individual fans, of course, are much more complex than that. They have a variety of motivations and desires and rooting interests. Collectively, however, their wallets tend to vote for winning above all else. Fans want team friendly deals because the less the team has to spend on the production it buys from players, the more production it can buy within its budget.
Teams hesitate to go over and above what they think is market value for a player because the fans generally don't care beyond how many wins the player adds (at least inasmuch as they won't hand over more revenue to the team). Since the fans by and large act and spend as if production and winning are more important than the identities of the players, teams see little reason to spend extra on players' identities for the fans. Players would be right to act in the same way, to not surrender their own interests to tie their identities to one team.
In that sense, players giving loyalty discounts is not about giving the fans the continuity they want, but about rewarding the team with discounted production. It goes right back to the same millionaires vs billionaires debate, just disguised as millionaires vs average joes to make it more palatable to side with the owners. When it comes down to it, the teams are going to spend in their own best interests, the players (at least those who are given the opportunity) are going to find the best situations for themselves and their families, and the fans are going to follow the success of the team. If a player leaves and the team spends that money on other players who will provide just as much production, the fans are all the happier.
In 2008, twelve years after my first and only other visit, I went to see Yankee Stadium again before they tore it down. By some great stroke of luck, I happened to get there on Old Timers' Day. Everyone was there, all the old stars gathering for one final time in the stadium where they had once played. Dave Winfield was there. Wade Boggs too. Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, two of the greatest lead-off hitters ever. Goose Gossage was there, fresh off his induction to Baseball's Hall of Fame. Reggie Jackson. Whitey Ford. Yogi Berra came out with Don Larsen, the most perfect of batteries to ever pitch a World Series game.
Everyone was there. Ron Blomberg, the first DH. Jim Abbott, the one-handed phenom who once threw a no-hitter for the Yankees. Tommy John, the greatest guinea pig in MLB history. The widows of Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard, and Catfish Hunter. Scores of other players, great and obscure alike.
And you know who got the biggest ovation of them all? Paul O'Neill. And Maybe Willie Randolph (though the crowd probably gave him a bit of undue credit for ruining the Mets' season). Fans are funny like that. Half a dozen guys (at least) at the ceremony would have commanded standing ovations at any park in the country, and it's Paul O'Neill the Yankee faithful went crazy for.
Cardinal fans are no different. Willie McGee is our Paul O'Neill. Cardinal fans absolutely love Willie McGee. There's something of a movement in certain parts of the fan base to get his number retired. He was a good player, sure, but man do we love him like he was way more than that. I know some Royals fans who feel that way about Mike Sweeney. There's no logic to it, but there are some players fans really latch onto as the embodiment of their team. You bring Willie McGee to Wrigley or Fenway or Exron Field and people will ask what the hell is going on. You bring him to Busch and the place erupts. That's what a local hero is in this game.
Stan is still the king in St. Louis, just like Berra and Ford in New York, or Ted Williams in Boston before he died. Their legends still reign over their towns, but their legacies go beyond that. Musial isn't just a Cardinal hero, he's a baseball hero (and a bona fide national hero, courtesy of our current President). That's the kind of player Pujols is, much more Musial than McGee. Splitting his career between St. Louis and Anaheim isn't going to change that any more than Frank Robinson being great in Baltimore and Cincinnati diminished his legacy in the game.
Pujols will still hold his place among the game's elite, still get the same royal treatment wherever he goes, just like Ken Griffy, Jr. and, I can only hope, Barry Bonds, both of whom left for new teams in free agency while at the top of the game. Maybe Albert will never get the Willie McGee treatment in St. Louis. He doesn't need to. He has earned so much more.
Pujols may never take over from Musial in St. Louis (assuming he ever really could have had he stayed). We can criticize Albert's decision over that potential loss and lament what could have been. Ultimately, though, that's a matter of how we as fans, and specifically Cardinal fans, relate to his career. It's about what we want, not necessarily what Pujols wants. Maybe that weighed on his decision to leave, maybe it didn't. Either way, Pujols weighed his options and came to a decision he was comfortable with. That it does not fulfill what we want for his legacy does not make it a mistake for Pujols.
It wasn’t a mistake, it was just a decision. It was a complicated decision that we will probably never fully understand, one that meant far too much to Albert and his family to boil down to just money, or to legacy, or to making the right set of fans happy. For fans, that’s hard to accept. We finally had another Musial, and now we have to share him with another franchise.
Pujols isn’t Musial, though. He doesn’t have to try to recreate Stan’s legacy in St. Louis to be great. He just has to keep being Albert, and he can be Albert anywhere. For the next ten years, he’ll do that in Anaheim, and I wish him the best of luck. For the past eleven years when he led the Cardinals through one of their most successful stretches, thanks, Albert. It was a great time to be a fan.