Since I started this website three years ago, I can’t ever remember a crazier week in the world of sports than this past one. We had the Major League Baseball's winter meetings mixed with the opening of NBA training camps, which just so happened to be fused into a fun week of college hoops, and the college football coaching carousel nearly spinning off its axis. My only wish is that we could’ve had the WNBA playoffs as a cheery on top of this week’s sports sundae.
I’m kidding on that last one of course. But in all seriousness though, all this sports madness left me in a tough conundrum yesterday morning. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot to write about; all was quiet on the home-front in basketball (where training camps opened today, and where- at the time- Chris Paul was still comfortably a Hornet), and in baseball things were quiet too, with no apparent player movement beyond “Mark Buehrle going to Florida.” So instead, I wrote a column about Tim Tebow. The timing was nothing, if not weird. Even I’ll admit that.
Still, the column did have some relevance. ...at least for about 30 seconds, until, just minutes after I posted it news broke that Albert Pujols had spurned the Cardinals and was headed to Anaheim (or is that Los Angeles?) to play for the Angels. Could it be true? Could the best player in baseball really be switching leagues and teams at the tail-end of his prime, and doing it in large part to spite the only organization he’d ever called home? It sounded like it couldn’t be real. Until it was.
Which brings us to today, and brings us to our eventual reality: Baseball’s power struggle has shifted out West, and done it on the big bat, and bigger contract of Albert Pujols. Ultimately, I don’t know what it means. Could it be that the Angels are guaranteed their first World Series win since 2002? AL West dominance for years to come? Or are they only guaranteed a week’s worth of headlines in April, followed by 10 years’ worth of big payments into Pujols’ direct deposit account from then on out? Only time will tell.
What I do know though, is that this is big. Like really, really big. And ultimately, it’s also the best thing that could’ve happened to the sport of baseball.
Now, with that said, I'll be the first to admit it obviously wasn’t the best thing that could’ve happened to the city of St. Louis. For that I apologize Cardinals fans. This sucks. I get that. I can only begin to imagine how much Pujols meant to your community both on the field and off of it, and as admitted sucker for stuff like this, it would’ve been cool to see Pujols finish his career in St. Louis. That just doesn’t happen very often anymore (or ever, really), but if anyone was going to do it, it seemed like Pujols would be the guy.
At the same time it’s hard to blame Pujols either. The Angels offered more money ($254 million compared to an estimated $210) over the same amount of years, not to mention the chance to start fresh in a new league, with the option of playing designated hitter in the final few years of the contract. From both a dollars and cents and common sense standpoint, it was a no-brainer.
Still, looking at this one from all perspectives, it seems like it was about more than just dollars and cents and common logic, and instead, about something much bigger: Ego, pride and respect. As the old saying goes “You’ve got to give respect to get respect,” and from reading the tea leaves, it seems like the best player in the sport felt like he wasn’t getting any from his bosses in St. Louis. And if you’re Albert Pujols, and you don’t feel like you’re getting that respect, it’s hard to blame you for wanting to skip town.
What do I mean? Well, to be perfectly honest, it seems like the team low-balled him from the beginning of these contract negotiations, and quite frankly have apparently been low-balling him for years. I’m no baseball expert, nor am I an economist, but the contract that Pujols signed in 2003 was for about $14.5 million a year, and from the best I can tell totally undervalued what Pujols was actually worth on the field. In retrospect, it’s quite frankly kind of insulting. By the end of his contract, Pujols wasn’t even the highest paid player on the Cardinals (Matt Holliday made over $16 million this past year), and he was making half of what Alex Rodriguez was in New York. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a guy making over $14 million a year, but if there was ever a situation that went against that logic, it was Pujols’.
That’s also why when Pujols became a free agent this winter, the team simply had to break the bank. It doesn’t matter if St. Louis is a small market, or if the organization has limitations, you’ve got overpay him now as a sign of respect for being underpaying him the last eight years. And if the club wasn't willing to do that, well they can't really complain when someone else was. To me, the whole thing is kind of like when you’re dating a girl, things get rocky, and you tell her, “Go ahead and break up with me, you’ll never find anybody better.” Yes it might be true. At the same time you can’t be mad if she actually goes ahead and does in fact break up with you.
Beyond that, the Cardinals couldn’t have picked a worse time to see their star- who just so happens to be a premiere first basemen- hit the open market. Simply put, teams are throwing around money for first basemen like sailors hitting a strip club after coming to port for the first time in months. As things stand Ryan Howard makes $25 million a year, Mark Teixeira $23 million and Adrian Gonzalez is about to start making $21 million in 2012. You mean to tell me those guys are worth more than Pujols? Give me a break. And even if they’re not, are you really going to ask Pujols to take less money than all of them, when he’s already been underpaid the last eight years? Again, give me…a freakin’ break.
Then there’s the whole “well, we just can’t pay him that much money for that many years,” conundrum…which again, might make sense, if we weren’t talking about Albert Pujols here. Also I’ve got to ask, once you’re already paying a guy over $20 million a year, is there really that much difference between $21 million and $25 million? Isn’t it all relative at that point? And even if it isn’t, is it really worth losing the face of your organization (and city) over a few million dollars per year? If you’re that worried about the money, couldn’t you frontload the contract to take full advantage of Pujols final few upcoming seasons as a superstar? You know, especially since he’s led you to two World Series titles in the last five years? To quote Cris Carter… “C’Mon, man!!!” Pay the guy!
And it’s because of that last little nugget that I give all the credit in the world to the Angels. They understand that while Albert Pujols might not be worth $25 million a year at the end of his contract, he’s damn well worth more now, and that anything they’ll be paying by the end will just be a tax for these first few years. Besides, won’t a bunch of playoff appearances and maybe a World Series ring or two pay things off? Not to mention all the other ancillary stuff, like having a bilingual Hispanic star in a densely populated Hispanic market in Los Angeles? All things considered, could the timing be any better for Anaheim? Especially as the Dodgers continue to be the red-headed stepchild of the market, and continue to lose support of the fan-base? To the Angels credit, they understand that Pujols’ value comes off the field too. It’s hard not to think that St. Louis may have taken that for granted.
And finally, there is one more little nugget I must add: Pujols going to Anaheim (or Los Angeles, whatever!) is the best possible thing that could’ve happened for baseball as a whole.
The truth is, there isn’t much that could’ve happened in the sport which would’ve gotten the attention of the causal sports fan, but this is it. As I mentioned before, the best player in the sport is changing teams and leagues in the tail-end of his prime? From a PR and interest standpoint, what more could the league ask for? Short of A-Rod ending up as Kim Kardashian’s rebound guy, I can’t think of much.
Simply put, sports are drama, and there would’ve simply been no drama with Pujols resigning in St. Louis. Yes, it would’ve been great for the people of the city, I have no doubt about that. But the rest of the country would’ve given a collective, “cool” and moved on to their lives playing video games and watching Jersey Shore re-runs. It takes a lot to catch our attention and keep it, and a headline of “Pujols resigns with the Cardinals” wouldn’t have done it.
But him signing in Los Angeles? Now we’ve got a whole lot to talk about!
Off the top of my head, here are a few talking points: Are the Angels now the best team in baseball? What do they do with Kendrys Morales and Mike Trout? Will the Red Sox or Yankees do anything to counteract this move? How do the Cardinals react? What’s their contingency plan? Has the American League’s balance of power shifted out West? What becomes of the Rangers? Without C.J. Wilson, do they have enough to compete? I could go on all day.
Beyond that, how is Pujols landing on the Left Coast not a win for baseball overall? For years everyone has complained that it is an Eastern-centric sport, and given that Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Jon Papelbon have all signed with Boston, New York or Philadelphia over the last few off-season’s, it’s hard to disagree. The majority of the country felt like the sport was slipping through their fingertips and that they had no reasons to compete or even be interested with New York, Boston and Philly spending the bulk of the money. Well now the Angels have thrown their hat into the ring as a contender, and the Rangers and San Francisco Giants are now also must-see TV. Baseball is back to being a sport of national interest rather than a regional one.
And guess what? As we learned in the NBA last year, more relevant teams mean more interest in the sport across the board. This again, is good for baseball. Imagine the expanded coverage we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Does Pujols' signing mean that Buster Olney is now going to be embedded in Angels spring training all month, filing goofy reports? Will the MLB Network launch “Albert Cam” and cut into whatever their doing to show all his at bats? I’m not sure, but I am eager to find out.
And ultimately, there’s no downside to this, unless you’re a resident of St. Louis or a fan of the team. To those people, I again apologize.
But to anyone else, it’s time to rejoice.
Albert Pujols is an Angel and us folks on the East Coast have a reason to stay up late now. Can Albert transition to the American League? Were last season’s low numbers an aberration or a sign of things to come? Will the Angels regret that contract in a few years? Are they now baseball’s favorites?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s a feat that I’m even asking them.
Welcome to Anaheim Albert.
Baseball just got a whole lot more interesting.
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