The Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas has been there before. That’s where Alex Rodriguez accepted $250 million of then-Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks’s misspent money, once upon a time. Hicks had a club three-to-thirteen-deep in pitching woes, and he decided the most surefire way of plugging up the leaking runs was to commit the near-equivalent of a solid pitching staff to . . . a shortstop.
That was then, this is now. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly trying to plug leaks by committing to a first baseman. But they didn’t exactly leave southern California dry by committing ten years and $254 million to Albert Pujols. Not to mention five years and $77.5 million to C.J. Wilson, which—depending upon how Wilson, whose home is a short walk to Angel Stadium, as it happens, bolsters the Angels’ starting rotation, and performs in particular against the Rangers to whom he’s saying goodbye—could be seen, potentially, as a little bit of payback considering Mike Napoli’s role in undoing the 2011 Angels and helping the Rangers get to within a strike of their first World Series title.
A title Pujols had no little hand in keeping from the Rangers’ grips.
But if you ask Wilson himself about what the two signings mean in the American League West, he’ll be the first to tell you he’s almost the invisible man compared to the big man who’s going to be playing first base, at least until his body tells him not to even think about it and to concentrate on the batter’s box almost strictly. ” I thought I was going to make a little bit of difference,” Wilson told reporters, “and he’s obviously going to make a huge one. I mean, nobody saw that coming.”
Say this much for Angels owner Arte Moreno: He’s not even close to the Steinbrenners of this world in taking the most obnoxious side of this stance, but perhaps the truest cliche you can attach to him is that he doesn’t like to lose. For the second time in his ownership of the franchise, Moreno has dipped into free agency waters and landed himself a franchise face you could reasonably call the franchise face. After a few seasons of missing out on blue chip free agents, in part because he was wary of through-the-ceiling spending, a new television deal providing new dollars means that Moreno has made up for lost time by landing a platinum plate.
The first time, Moreno got the absolute best of what would be left of Vladimir Guerrero, after years of pounding on Montreal’s criminal artificial turf turned his legs into the beginnings of straws. Guerrero merely nailed the American League’s MVP award his first season in Angels silks. He clearly carried the team’s offence, for most of his term in Anaheim, turning the strike zone into the Twilight Zone for opposing pitchers, turning Angel Stadium into an ongoing party with his conversation-piece home runs, his sometimes daring batsmanship otherwise, and his shotgun of a throwing arm, at least until the injuries finally began draining the talent and—sadly but realistically—the Angels said a reluctant enough goodbye to him as he hit free agency again.
This time, Moreno could stand to be making his Guerrero landing resemble that of a mere skiff. Landing Pujols could be equivalent to landing the Queen Mary. “I’ll miss seeing him,” says Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, who made Pujols a Cardinal in the first place when running the Redbirds, “but I won’t miss facing him.” Oh, the National League is probably singing a few rounds of “happy days are here again” now that Pujols is out of their hair. The American League West, for openers, is probably singing a few rounds of “Standing on Shaky Ground.” For openers.
“We just saw him for seven games,” says Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine. “I think it’s safe to say we haven’t exactly figured him out yet.”
Haven’t exactly figured him out yet? That’s a little along the line of saying George Armstrong Custer hadn’t exactly figured Sitting Bull out yet. Pujols hit a mere .246 in the Series but he hung up a staggering 1.064 Series OPS, thanks especially to that transdimensional Game Three performance, that 5-for-6, six-RBI performance that included one after another home run beginning in the sixth inning, starting with the three-run bomb he smashed off Alexi Ogando to put the game way out of the Rangers’ reach in the first place, continuing with the two-run launch off Mike Gonzalez an inning later, and finishing with a solo off Darren Oliver two innings later.
Now the Rangers are going to be seeing a lot more of Pujols than just one World Series wipeout, not to mention what it looks like to face rather than play behind C.J. Wilson, who may or may not be overrated after a mere two seasons’ worth of starting pitching but who impressed the Angels just enough to make it count.
Wilson doesn’t mind playing in the ensemble behind Pujols’ John Coltrane. Nobody in his right mind would. Now, what about the thoughts that Pujols was about to hit his decline phase? Tell it to Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto, who’d just seen Pujols vapourise the vaunted Philadelphia pitching staff in a National League Division Series, when DiPoto’s job was still Arizona’s assistant GM. Who’d just seen Pujols hit .350, slug .500, and reach base to a .409 clip against the Phillies’ collection of Cy Young winners. Who’d just seen Pujols train every last ballpark eye upon him, yet again, merely by stepping into the on-deck circle.
“If we want to call a ‘decline’ going from superhuman to just great,” DiPoto says, “that’s fine. I don’t think we’ve seen the last great days of Albert Pujols, obviously, or we wouldn’t be sitting here today. What struck me (in the Philadelphia series) was the presence. More than anything else, it was the presence. More than the three-homer game, more than the clutch hits, the big RBI. It’s what Albert brings to the rest of the team. It’s every eye in that stadium being trained on him. And it’s the opponents on the other side knowing where he is. He has that game-changing presence.”
Something the Cardinals may have let slip to the back of their thinking when all was said and done, and for a little too long. They were well aware that Pujols and St. Louis had the kind of love affair that allowed St. Louis to overlook his very few flaws. But they also couldn’t bring themselves at first to make him the highest-paid first baseman in the game. If you want to talk about St. Louis and most of everyone else thinking of Pujols as a mercenary, you must talk concurrently about whether the Cardinals in the end thought a little less of the man who stood to become their greatest icon this side of Stan Musial—if he wasn’t already—than they’d led the world to believe.
Pujols was a three-time MVP and two-time World Series champion in Cardinals’ silks and yet the Cardinals never quite paid him market value over all that time. He’d already given them one hometown discount when, in winter 2004 and eligible for salary arbitration, he accepted seven years and $100 million in exchange for his first five free-agency seasons. You have to ponder whether Pujols wasn’t thinking that he’d given them the hometown break once and it was only fair that they give him his genuine market value in return.
You have to ponder, too, whether Pujols wasn’t paying closer attention when the Cardinals made two signings—Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, in 2009 and 2011—that might have helped produce the back-from-the-dead World Series conquest but might also have helped tie the Cardinals’ financial hands enough that they weren’t going to be able to repay Pujols for that one hometown discount, after all.
What does it mean that the best player of his generation, and perhaps one of the absolute best the game has ever seen, was never among the top fifteen best-paid players in the game until Arte Moreno reached out and touched him personally? Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune, who covers a team once thought to have had eyes for Pujols, who did a lot of damage at their expense, secures it well enough. “At the end,” he writes, “this wasn’t about the Cardinals being cheap or Pujols being greedy. It was about the free market and the competitive nature of baseball owners.”
As a matter of fact, Pujols’s signing with the Angels amounted to his accepting less than the best offer on the table. The Miami Marlins—isn’t it amazing that this franchise, under federal investigation for financial shenanigans, can spend like a bunch of drunken Yankees this offseason?—are said to have offered $275 million. Pujols, in turn, is said to be less than thrilled with their direction. So money, ladies and gentlemen, may not quite have been everything, after all.
And you can knock it off with the LeBron James comparisons while you’re at it. The last I looked, Albert Pujols, with two more championship rings than James, wasn’t booking an hour’s worth of prime television time to announce his decision and explain why.