(Baseball StL) -- There is something sad yet metaphoric about watching Albert Pujols limp around the baseball diamond.
And it should be instructional for baseball owners who fall in love with what players have done in the past. But in this river of swift flowing money and little common sense, that is a thin reed to cling to.
Albert was the consummate professional in St. Louis, community-oriented, a family man who put his name and star power behind the causes he championed. His popularity was so powerfully infectious that a statue was raised in his honor, as one might have done a Roman general returning from conquest.
He willed mediocre teams to greatness with his power and relentless assault on pitching staffs. In 2006, the Cardinals finished the season just 5 games over .500, but his determination and faith inspired a young Yadier Molina and the rest of the slightly-better-than-average Cardinals.
By 2011, it was clear Pujols’ skills were deteriorating but his performance in Game 3 in Texas lives in the annals of the greatest games ever recorded by a single player; 5-for-6 at the plate, 3 home runs, 6 RBIs. It was the game that returned home field advantage to the Cardinals and though it was Freese’s heroics and Berkman’s clutch hit that won it, arguably Pujols provided the opportunity for all of it to occur.
But Albert was clearly failing. All but one of his hits in the seven game series came in that Game 3. All of his RBIs and all of his home runs were contained in that one magnificent showing. Molina had more RBIs, Berkman had more hits and when it counted, Freese, not Pujols, was the man of the hour.
It was his contract year and though the Cardinals did everything they could to bring the fading star back to St. Louis, the Angels wanted him more. And we let him walk.
Every organization has a moment, a crucial decision that will determine its fate for years to come. All of baseball thought losing Pujols was the death knell, the crushing loss that would doom the Redbird nation to the same frustration and futility of organizations like Kansas City (27 years without a play-off appearance) or, God help us, the princes of futility, the franchise so inept it is universally known as The Lovable Losers, the Chicago Cubs.
But the opposite proved true. The Cards used that extra money to lock up Adam Wainwright, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina. Expiring contracts will give them even more salary flexibility as their young stars emerge.
This year, the Cardinals are stronger, deeper and more balanced than they ever were in the Pujols era. That’s not to denigrate his greatness, only to show that there is more than one arrow in the quiver of an imaginative organization.
Albert limped and struggled against the Redbirds, his futility painful to watch, like a boxer past his prime pummeled by a street fighter.
He was a magnificent athlete; a giant in the game who may have learned as we did that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At least in St. Louis.
Watching Albert was like watching the burning wreckage of the plane you were supposed to be on; so hideous, so impossible to comprehend that you must look away.
But those who chose to pay him roughly $200 million for the next 8 years cannot look away. That limping struggling shell of the once-great Albert Pujols is a metaphor for poor decisions made by struggling franchises that seek the one big move that will give them legitimacy.
He was great, “was” being the operative word. We are lucky. We saw him at his best, paid him what he was worth and let him go when his demands far outstripped our need of him.
“They know what they did,” Pujols told the national media in reference to some imagined slight during negotiations two years ago.
Yes, they do. They avoided paying unreasonable sums for past performance and thus avoiding the train wreck of watching him limp around the field, eating up 35 percent of their salary budget.
We all loved Albert then. We should all be glad he doesn’t play here anymore.