It's not often that the refrain "Wait 'til next year" actually means something of consequence for the Chicago Cubs, but it does now. Of course the Cubs should move heaven and earth to sign Albert Pujols, precisely because this could be their best chance to transform not only the team, but the brand. Please don't bother me with what might happen when Pujols reaches 40 or 41 years of age and whether he'll be overpaid by then. Don't bother me with predictions of gloom and doom when the alternative is stealing away your hated rival's best-ever player and putting him into your lineup in the prime of his life.
The St. Louis Cardinals won championships before Pujols showed up in St. Louis, and as great as he is -- he is described as "iconic," and the adjective is completely appropriate -- they are going to win after he's gone, too, whether it's sooner or later. St. Louis is playing contract hardball with him and asking him to settle for being the fourth-highest-paid player at his position, even though he's the best every-day player in the game today. That ought to be the just the break the Cubs have been seeking for more than a century.
Wrigley Field has been home to All-Stars and Hall of Famers, but never to the single best every-day player of his generation. You don't waste time staring at the price tag if that player is within your grasp.
Of course, the Cubs should make a real play for Pujols, and there's no law that says you have to have him under contract at 41 or 42 if you pay him enough over the next seven or eight seasons -- say, $35 million a year on average. It couldn't set up any better for Pujols leaving St. Louis for Chicago, starting with the fact that so many other wealthy would-be suitors already have somebody to whom they're paying tons of money to play first base. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez, the White Sox have Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, the Mets still have to recover from Bernie Madoff.
And the Cubs, not coincidentally, are poised to get out from under contractual obligations to Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Silva, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena, which would amount to more than $45 million. Pena, the ex-Ray, signed a $10 million free-agent deal to play first base this season; but conveniently enough, his contract is for 2011 only.
Dare I say it? It all seems to be lining up for the Cubbies … if they want to make the commitment.
Asking whether the Cubs really should go after Pujols is like asking whether a team should have taken Lou Gehrig at a similar stage of his career. The notion that Pujols would be overpaid in the final two or three years of a 10-year-contract ignores the fact that he's been underpaid -- not just the first few years, but over his entire career so far, even this coming season at $16 million. Every single at-bat of Pujols' career suggests he has four to five Hall of Fame seasons left, by which time the Cubs could have won, at long last, a World Series.
Mostly, the Cubs have a need, competitively and even financially. Their attendance has dropped from 99 percent capacity to 92 percent last year, which is an area Pujols would impact immediately, one where the increased revenue would be simple to quantify. If Tom Ricketts wants to make big changes to Wrigley Field, he needs a signature signing. And Jim Hendry's aggressiveness would seem to be just the approach.
The issue that remains is why Pujols would leave St. Louis to go anywhere, Chicago included. The easy answer is that salary is the ultimate way to keep score, and if the Cardinals insist on offering something closer to $21 million a year than $30 million, chances are they've got no realistic shot at keeping Pujols, who isn't about to take less money than fellow first basemen Teixeira, Ryan Howard and Miguel Cabrera. If that continues to be the Cardinals' negotiating tack, they might as well wave goodbye even before the five-day exclusive negotiating period starts this fall.
But ultimately, appealing to Pujols' ego could be the most important pitch. Increasingly in recent years, we've heard Pujols say he wants to retire as one of the greatest players ever. He can do better than that. He has played in Chicago enough to know of the club's historic futility, and he surely has some sense of how big a hero he would be in Chicago if he ever leads the Cubs to a World Series. It would dwarf the popularity he has in St. Louis.
The Angels and the Dodgers, if they decide to spend money again, will be looking at Pujols as longingly as the Cubs will. The Yankees, no doubt, will say "no way" they have any interest in Pujols and, more importantly, they have no place to put him. But if the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman can find room for both Jeter and A-Rod, they could certainly do the same for Pujols and Teixeira.
Still, Pujols won't be able to help himself this summer from noticing -- this time perhaps with an eye on his future -- how hitter-friendly Wrigley Field is, how those breezes help blow balls over the left-field fence and onto Waveland Avenue, how Chicago crackles when the Cubs are even in contention.
No baseball player can have the impact on a game that LeBron James, the most anticipated free agent in the history of American sports, had when he left Cleveland for Miami. James is hated now in Cleveland, just as Pujols would surely be hated in St. Louis if he left. But the Cardinals aren't anybody's Cavaliers. Winning is too much in their DNA for them to turn into chumps simply because Pujols leaves, great as he is.
But what Pujols could do, almost certainly would do in Chicago, is lend a credibility and perhaps even a validity to a franchise that in more than 100 years has had Hall of Famers and scores of great players, but nobody as great at Pujols. And nobody more likely to put an end to the despair.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.