Commentary

The Albert Pujols contract tug-of-war

If the Cardinals icon leaves St. Louis, it won't be because of the players' union

Updated: February 16, 2011, 1:19 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- Back in Stan Musial's day, it's an excellent bet that his manager never once complained that the players' union was beating on him to grab for as many millions as he could get.

For one thing, there was no such thing as "millions." Not even for the great Stan Musial. And for another thing, there was no such thing as a players' union. Not one headed by Marvin Miller, anyway.

Yes, times were more peaceful then. Or, as Tony La Russa put it Tuesday on a sparkling spring training morning, times were, at the very least, "different" in Stan the Man's day.

Well, Tuesday was supposed to have been the golden moment when Stan Musial's day came around again one more time. A day the Cardinals legend headed for the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A day when even Albert Pujols "wouldn't want us to talk about him today," La Russa said, softly, respectfully.

OK, so how'd that work out?

Uh, not so hot, of course. In the spring training land of the St. Louis Cardinals, Albert is the topic that never sleeps.

As the hours crept ever closer to Wednesday's noon Eastern deadline for finishing Pujols' contract extension, all roads seemed to lead to Albert. All conversations seemed to lead to Albert. All life seemed to revolve around Albert.

It's pretty much a lock now that Albert Pujols is going to become a free agent in 8½ months. The vibe in this camp was that it would take something miraculous for a deal to materialize out of the mist before the deadline alarm sounds. And maybe "miraculous" is too optimistic a word.

The guy's just a freak in every way, and he's going to earn every penny he makes from whoever pays him. We just hope he's part of our organization, obviously. But we'll have to wait and see how it plays out.

-- Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright

So no wonder this cloudless spring morning began with Tony La Russa philosophizing on the greatness of Stan Musial -- and somehow evolved into a managerial rant on the evils of the players' union, and what it's doing to mess with the mind of the Best Player Alive.

La Russa has floated this theory before, you understand -- but never quite this forcefully, never quite this pointedly.

For a player like Pujols to be pressured into making a decision like this just for money -- that's "bull----," Tony La Russa said.

And in response to a reference about the union "arm-twisting," the manager snapped that this was "not just arm-twisting. It's dropping an anvil on [Pujols'] back through the roof of [his] house."

You can read the full smorgasbord of these quotes elsewhere on this site, along with the vigorous denial by Michael Weiner of the union. Feel free to peruse them for a moment. I'll wait for you to get back. Heck, you can never get enough flying-anvil quotes.

All right, everyone back on board? Excellent. Now let's try to dissect what Tony La Russa was getting at, and what his true motivations may have been.

Maybe he really does believe that this is all a giant conspiracy plot, concocted by the union. But even his own players could tell him that's not how this union stuff actually works.

"Obviously, the union -- that's part of their job to drive salaries," said Cardinals player representative Kyle McClellan. "But in this case, do I think there's a deal in place and the union came in and said, 'Whoa, no'? I can't say for sure, but I would say Albert Pujols probably isn't worried about a lot of those things.

"Now I'm sure there's pressure on his agent. But Albert knows what he's doing. He's going to look out for the things that he wants to look out for. He shoulders everything superstars have to shoulder in this day and age … better than anybody I've ever seen. So I don't think he's going to let somebody come in and tell him the decision he needs to make."

It's long been the sense of Pujols' friends and teammates that this bullet train is being driven by Captain Albert, not by any union chiefs. It's a big, big deal for his agent, Dan Lozano, too, clearly. But nobody orders Albert Pujols to do anything. Nobody.

He's given the Cardinals 10 historic seasons at their price. Now, for the next eight or 10, he's ready to play for his price.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Jeff Curry/US PresswireAlbert Pujols' price tag may be out of the Cardinals' reach.

Maybe he'll get that price from the Cardinals next winter. Maybe he'll get it from the Cubs or the Nationals or the Angels or some other team. But when this negotiating fog clears, he's clearly determined to be the highest-paid player in the history of his sport. And it's still tough to think of any conceivable argument that would convince us he shouldn't be.

Even his teammates -- some of them major stars in their own right -- have a hard time looking at Sir Albert and connecting the dots of his contract tug-of-war to any negotiating squabbles they might ever get mixed up in someday.

"I think Albert's situation is just so unique, I don't think there's anybody on this clubhouse qualified to comment on it, to be honest with you," said Adam Wainwright, a guy who has finished in the top three of two consecutive Cy Young elections. "I think we're on such different planets than he is. The guy's just a freak in every way, and he's going to earn every penny he makes from whoever pays him. We just hope he's part of our organization, obviously. But we'll have to wait and see how it plays out. "

The fans of St. Louis, on the other hand, may not be so patient. And even more important, they may not be so reverent.

If they size up this situation this spring and decide that Albert Pujols is a fellow who values money more than he values the special privilege of wearing Cardinals red, uh-oh. You never know how they might react.

They might even (gasp) boo this man.

Which brings us back to Tony La Russa. Just before he turned the conversation in the direction of union pressure, he was asked a question about the possibility that the reception for Pujols back in St. Louis this April might be, well, "different" from what Sir Albert is used to. Well, the manager was having none of that.

"I think Albert and the Cardinals have built up so many points with our fans," La Russa said, "that whatever happens, you're not going to get much [negativity]. Now there might be some people that just can't help themselves. But I think the great majority of the people who support our club are going to support the Cardinals and support Albert. So if he's not signed Opening Day, I don't think you'll hear anything more than the biggest cheers for Albert Pujols. I mean, he's built up 10 years of points he's made, and the organization has 100 years."

Now maybe it was a coincidence that within the next minute, La Russa was trying to paint the folks down at union headquarters as the axis of evil in this saga -- with no prompting, by the way. (The question that launched this monologue was simply about whether he was "hopeful" a deal still could get done.) But … hmmmmmmm … maybe not.

If Cardinals fans need somebody to blame for Albert Pujols' possibly imminent exit from their heavenly city, would it work out best for everybody if they blamed (A) the team, (B) the player or (C) those buzz-killing union scrooges?

Any guesses on how Tony La Russa would answer that question? Thought so.

We're not so sure he can make this convenient conspiracy theory stick. But heck, it was worth a try.

And it was especially worth a try on a day when the manager was so intent on basking in the glow of one of his boyhood heroes, Stan Musial.

Remember now, that glow shines brighter for Tony La Russa not just because Stan the Man was such a great Cardinal -- but because he was only a Cardinal. So he earns a special brand of worship that those who merely pass through can never attain.

"If you look at doing it now," La Russa said, of spending a career with just one team, "it probably is a little more significant because it's so unusual [in this age]. Cal [Ripken] did it. There aren't many guys that do it. It's just the nature of the game. And now we're looking at our guy. You know, Albert is one of the guys who have that."

Or, to be precise, he's one of the guys with the chance to have that.

Because of the age he played in, Stan Musial never did have the opportunity Pujols has now -- to test his market, to get paid Super Lotto dollars, to play for any other team of his choosing.

So what we perceive now as unshakable loyalty to the Cardinals and the town they play in was still, at least in part, a product of baseball life in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s. That notion might interfere with the fairy tales we often concoct for ourselves. But it's a fact.

I asked Tony La Russa if he'd ever wondered whether Stan the Man would have played nearly a quarter-century in St. Louis if he'd come along in this period of time.

"I've thought about that a lot," La Russa replied. "And we're seeing that example now, with Albert. But I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. I just know times are so different, and now you've got really good [players] that are moving around.

"Some of it is the system now. You've got guys who are really great players and you can't afford to keep paying them. The system allows you to have a lot of freedom now: Where are you going to go? Where are you going to play?"

"So is the game diminished now by not having many players like that?" I asked.

"Well, I think that part of it -- stability, loyalty -- is obviously diminished because you don't see it," he said.

The Tony La Russa who gave those answers wasn't the Oliver Stone Tony. It was more like the Socrates Tony. But somewhere in there, when he was reflecting on Stan Musial's time, didn't he hit on the truth of what's really going on in the Albert Pujols negotiations of 2011?

Isn't this about the system? Isn't this about freedom? Isn't this as much about "the nature of the game" in 2011 as it is about a player's "loyalty"?

If other teams have "really great players" and they "can't afford to keep paying them," why can't the same thing happen in St. Louis? Correct answer: It can.

So if Albert Pujols leaves, that's exactly what this will be -- a business decision, period. By a team. And by its player. It will not be because the union drove this man out of town.

The Cardinals will simply be making a decision that it's not sound business to keep paying gigundous dollars to any player -- even one as great as Albert -- until age 40 or 41 or 42. And you know what? It's hard to blame them. Except I couldn't help but notice something Tuesday:

Guess which Cardinal hit .330 at age 41 -- and was still hitting third in the lineup at age 42?

Yep. Right you are. That would be Stan Musial. Who else?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com