- Albert Pujols is leaving the Cardinals, and St. Louis should be relieved, Jeff Pearlman says
- Pujols may be worth a $254 million contract with the Angels, but he's a pain, Pearlman says
- Pearlman says he's seen few pro athletes who show more disrespect for loyalists
- Pujols was St. Louis' Zeus, and nothing negative could ever be said -- until now, he says
The liberation of St. Louis begins now.
Albert Pujols is leaving the city and you are free, dear people, to speak the truth. No longer do you have to cower. No longer do you have to worry about stern looks and furious retorts. No longer do you have to tiptoe around the mighty slugger and his Ruthian numbers, fearful that he might say to hell with riverboat casinos and go elsewhere, someplace warmer. No longer do you have to mindlessly utter the Cardinal company lines about all of Pujols' charity work and family life and what a wonderful person he is.
With Thursday's news that Pujols has agreed to a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Cardinals officials, players and fans are finally permitted say what has gone unsaid far too long -- that Albert Pujols is a pain in the rear.
I know. Albert loves kids. And puppies. And kids with puppies. He is a devout Christian who has written, "My life's goal is to bring glory to Jesus." His foundation raises large bundles of money to help kids with Down syndrome (and if you don't believe this, ask anyone associated with Pujols. They'll tell you. And tell you. And tell you.). He has never, apparently, drowned a dog or shot himself in the leg.
Over the past 11 years, St. Louis' slugging infielder could do no wrong. And yes, it helped that he averaged 42 homers and 126 RBIs while leading the club to two World Series titles.
And yet ... for the hundreds of people who work for the Cardinals, and for the majority of the thousands upon thousands of fans who have asked Pujols for an autograph or a handshake or the smallest of words, the three-time National League MVP is, well, terrible.
Having now covered sports for 17 years, I've witnessed few professional athletes who show greater disrespect and outright disdain for loyalists than Pujols. He is a man who, during spring training, walks from station to station with his head down; who responds to "Albert, we love you!" not with a smile or a nod, but with cold nothingness. When people call his name, he almost never gazes up. When people ask for an autograph, he doesn't even bother with a "Not now" or "Try me later." Instead, he turns to devices that men such as Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent perfected in the recent decades -- the steel-faced, how-dare-you-even-talk-to-me, ignore-the-world two-step.
It's not a problem that Pujols doesn't say much -- neither does Derek Jeter. It's not that Pujols is intense -- Jimmy Rollins is certainly right there with him. No, what rubs so many people wrongly is his frostiness. Or, as one longtime Cardinals usher told me last March, "How about looking up at people when they talk to you? How about acknowledging that they exist?"
During the waning days of last spring training, I stood alongside Pujols' table during the annual Cardinals Autograph Day at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. Admittedly, the event is one that no player enjoys; a contrived, goofy, strictly-for-the-benefit-of-the-fans labor of torturous obligation. Here is a direct, play-by-play transcript from the opening minutes:
Fan: "Albert, great to meet you! You're my favorite player in the world!"
Pujols (not looking up): "Thanks."
Fan 2: "Albert, do you sign jerseys?"
Pujols: (not looking up): "No."
Fan 2: "Helmets?"
Pujols (not looking up): "No."
Fan 3: "Good luck this year, Albert. You deserve everything you get."
Pujols (not looking up): "Uh-huh. Thanks."
Fan 4: "Albert, my daughter loves you."
Pujols (not looking up):
Because of his endorsement deal with Upper Deck, Pujols signed only pictures and baseballs (every other player signed whatever was presented to him). To call him rude would be to personify an utter lack of emotion. Pujols wasn't rude -- he was absent.
And yet, because baseball lathers itself in mythology, and because Pujols was St. Louis' Zeus, and because St. Louis clutches onto its ballplayers the way a 5-year-old clutches her American Girl doll, nothing negative could ever be said.
Truth be told, inside the Cardinals' clubhouse Pujols was, on his best days, pleasantly present. When asked, younger players would praise his leadership skills because, frankly, that's what young players do. Yet with last season's arrival of the affable, open, intelligent Lance Berkman, members of the team were able to witness what genuine leadership looks like.
Now, Pujols -- perhaps the most revered Cardinal since Stan Musial -- has pulled a LeBron James II, abandoning his adopted hometown when bigger bucks and a sniff of Hollywood came calling. Whereas once he had a chance to stand alongside Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and George Brett and Cal Ripken Jr. as legends who spent their entire careers with one franchise, now he is but a nomad -- richer, without question, but shockingly smaller in stature. Though the idea of Pujols in an Angels uniform seems strange at this moment, our eyes will inevitably adjust.
And in St. Louis, I believe, so will opinions.
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