- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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JUPITER, Fla. -- If he's worried about where life will lead him, out beyond the horizon, Albert Pujols never showed it.
If he's hurt, if he's angry, if he thinks he's been wronged by a Cardinals team that's kicked away its final exclusive window to sign him, he's keeping all that wrapped up in his inner safe, deep inside his serene outer shell.
I want to be a Cardinal forever. That's my goal.
”-- Albert Pujols
If he's looking around already, trying to fathom that this could be his final spring -- and season -- in the only uniform he's ever worn, he never let on. Not for a moment. Not with one word that comes out of his mouth. Not with a single roll of the eyeballs.
The most important season of Pujols' life begins now. Begins here. Begins with a familiar journey to a familiar clubhouse, where the same familiar faces still surround him.
And if you took him at his word Thursday morning, when he spoke to the media hordes with a smile on his face for 24 remarkable minutes, he has no interest in ever looking for the exit sign. Not now. Not ever.
"I want to be a Cardinal forever," he said. "That's my goal."
These were the words his fan club in St. Louis needed to hear. These were the words he most needed to utter if he wants to make it through this season atop the same pedestal where these people have placed him for a decade.
He couldn't possibly have sounded more sincere, couldn't possibly have looked more comfortable. It was Sir Albert at his finest, at his smartest, at his most charming. He had his message to deliver. He made sure to deliver it in response to as many questions as possible.
If you want to take him at his word, accept all of this at face value, feel free. Just recognize that there was plenty he didn't say.
He certainly never said he wanted to be a Cardinal forever no matter what.
He certainly never said he wanted to be a Cardinal forever at any price.
He certainly never said he wanted to be a Cardinal forever at a discount -- especially the kind of hometown discount this team has grown so accustomed to being granted by its stars.
He handled all those issues smoothly, deftly, just by saying he won't negotiate this deal through the media. It's a line that serves as the perfect escape hatch any time this topic grows even remotely uncomfortable.
As his general manager, John Mozeliak, had done the day before, Pujols brought up the name of Derek Jeter, and not just once. But the most pointed reference came in a response to a question that included the not-so-magic word, "discount."
"I already told you I don't want to negotiate through you guys," Pujols told his media entourage, "because that's not how it works. We've done a pretty good job of keeping this quiet and "
OK, wait for it
"Because we don't want this to get crazy," he went on, "like what happened with one of the great superstars in New York."
Now isn't it interesting that when Pujols and his team look from afar at Jeter's rocky voyage through free agency, this is what both of them see?
Not so much a parallel in which a franchise icon was allowed to play out his free-agent season, only to re-sign -- but a messy public negotiation that may have forever damaged the relationship between a player and team that need each other?
No player and no team would ever look at that rocky negotiating saga as The Way It Ought to Be Done. Certainly not this player. Certainly not this team. But it's the other half of that Jeter/Pujols parallel that's actually far more meaningful.
Jeter is an example of how teams allow star players to sail those free-agent seas all the time -- and some of them do come back. It happens when both sides care enough about each other that they work to find a way home.
Even more important, though, it happens when both sides need each other so much that no other destination can ever possibly feel right.
But is that what we're seeing here with Pujols and the Cardinals?
We don't lack for evidence that the Cardinals didn't exactly exhaust every avenue in their negotiating atlas to get their man signed this winter, despite their assurances to the contrary Wednesday.
And those same negotiations serve as equal proof that Pujols has other dishes on his table besides that Cardinal For Life entrée he spoke so passionately about Thursday. So as earnestly and eloquently as he may have professed his love for his team, never forget this:
He doesn't need the Cardinals in the same way Derek Jeter needed the Yankees last winter. Not to get paid what he thinks he should get paid. And not to complete his Hall of Fame legacy.
Listen to Pujols' answer Thursday to a question about how important it would be to him to be known as a Cardinal for life:
"Well, it's a good thing I don't have to make that decision today," he said at first. But then that little voice in his brain, the one that was supposed to remind him to voice only happy thoughts, kicked in -- and he shifted gears, practically in mid-sentence.
"Yeah, this is a great place to have on your résumé, to be a Cardinal for life," he said. "You know, there's not too many players who stay with one organization. So believe me, it's a good place to have in your life."
All right. Now listen, however, to the grand finale:
"So yeah, hopefully that happens," he concluded. "But if not, I mean, then it's something that you can't control."
Well, of course he can control it. Both sides control it. Yet both said repeatedly, in their dueling meetings with the media, that this was out of their control. Really? Then who controls it -- Donald Trump?
Somewhere along the line, Sir Albert has the decision of a lifetime to make. But as he reminded us often Thursday, the time for that decision isn't now. Not anymore. Not after he passed on the only offer the Cardinals tossed through their wintertime window of opportunity. Not after Wednesday's noon deadline roared by with a press release, not a contract.
I already told you I don't want to negotiate through you guys, because that's not how it works. We've done a pretty good job of keeping this quiet.
”-- Albert Pujols
So when Pujols was asked Thursday morning how hard it was to imagine that this might be his final season as a Cardinal, his answer gave us a great feel for how he's going to manage to handle all that awaits him over the next eight, or nine, or 10 months:
"I don't have to worry about it," he said. "And I don't want to think about it."
You can't be a truly great athlete in this modern sports world we live in without a strength that isn't visible in your biceps or forearms. It's that inner strength, that ability to summon tunnel vision, that guides all the great ones through the modern jungle of sports.
And make no mistake about it: Pujols has that.
"I told him today that if there's one guy who can handle the distractions, it's him," said his manager, Tony La Russa, on Thursday. "And he said: 'Watch me.'"
Oh, and we will. Trust us. Albert may not fully comprehend this yet, but over these next nine or 10 months, he's about to become The Biggest Story in Sports. He's now LeBron. He's now Favre. He's now the topic that can light up any talk-show host's call board.
Asked how any human being could find a way to handle that, the relentless self-assurance that has gotten Pujols to this place came shining through.
"Believe me, I've never been in a situation like this before," he said. "But I've been [under] attention since my rookie year, since I got to the big leagues. Pressure. Pressure. And pressure. And I've put that in the past.
"I've been blessed by God with different ability," he said, confidently. "I just flip that page, man. And you guys are gonna see. You're gonna see in spring training. I'm not gonna change anything."
And if you want to take anything Pujols said Thursday on its face, take that. Believe that. His manager certainly does.
"Over 10 years [together], you learn a lot about a guy," Tony La Russa said. "And he won't change. He'll never change."
So this is the final time you'll hear Pujols answering these questions, kicking around these issues. One thing he's determined not to do is turn this season into LeBron II.
"I'm Albert Pujols," he said, sternly. "He's LeBron James. I would never do anything like that."
So cancel that ESPN Albert special. Wrong free agent. Wrong script.
"Actually, let's do a reality show," Pujols joked.
Hey, now that we can do: "The Real Zillionaires of St. Louis County," coming right up, right after this very special word from the accounting department.
Except that this is no joke. This man is about to become the best reality show going. He just doesn't know it yet.
"The deadline was [Wednesday]," Albert Pujols said. "It's time to play baseball."
And it is. Unfortunately, for these next nine or 10 months, for The Best Player Alive, baseball will be far from the only game in his action-packed town.
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.