ST. LOUIS (AP) -- St. Louis Cardinals fans sent a clear message to Albert Pujols on Thursday: Please stay.
The three-time National League MVP received a warm ovation when introduced before the game, and again when he came to bat in the bottom of the first inning during the season-opener against the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium.
The cheering began as Colby Rasmus, batting in front of Pujols, legged out a triple and grew as Pujols came to bat, though most of the red-clad crowd appeared to remain seated.
It didn't help. Pujols popped up, stranding Rasmus, though Matt Holliday followed with a single to score the runner.
It was the first regular-season game for the 31-year-old slugger since Pujols cut off contract negotiations with the Cardinals on the first day of spring training. Neither side plans to negotiate during the season so it appears Pujols will become a free agent, opening the possibility he could leave St. Louis.
"I think they should give him more money so he can stay because he's an awesome player," Amy Kerr, 29, of Barnhart, Mo., said.
Molly Surgel, 23, of St. Louis, also wants Pujols to stay, but worries that the financial realities of a mid-market team with a restricted budget mean that he might not.
"I think it's really sad, not only because he's a great baseball player but because he does so much for the community," Surgel said. "It signals a turning point in baseball that we're never going to get back to that period where people just played for love."
Pujols has spent his entire 10-year career with the Cardinals. He has never hit below .300, never failed to exceed 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
Neither side has said how much Pujols is seeking in his next contract, but some believe he could get $30 million a year for up to 10 years.
As much as fans want Pujols back, many realize a team with an annual payroll of around $100 million can't compete if it invests nearly one-third of its money in one player, no matter how great he is.
"I'd hate to see him go," Kevin Hill, 55, of Marion, Ill., said. "I'd like to see him signed, but $30 million is too much. I like to see a competitive team."
Opening day in St. Louis also featured appearances by several hall-of-famers, including Stan Musial, who received the presidential Medal of Freedom in February. Musial, 90, waved to the crowd from a golf cart during the traditional opening-day parade around the ballpark.
Other Cardinals greats present included Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst and Whitey Herzog -- men who spent all or nearly all of their careers with the Cardinals.
Whether Pujols will someday be part of the parade is now in doubt.
"If he goes it wouldn't change how I feel about the Cardinals, and if he's going to leave for money, I wish him the best, but then, he doesn't belong in St. Louis," Surgel said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)