Last year, while watching the Cardinals-Giants NLCS at the fan bar Foley's in midtown New York, our group of 150-plus Cardinals fans began lustily booing the television screen. Cardinals fans aren't booers by nature, but this guy had gotten under our skin. After the Cardinals had taken the lead in Game Four, the FOX camera had caught a Cardinals fan in the upper deck of Busch Stadium carrying a sign that read, "PUJOLS WHO?" Our reaction was immediate and unequivocal. Had he been standing in front of us, someone would have bonked him with a bat.
We weren't booing Albert Pujols. We were booing the fan. We were booing what was and is still sort of an open wound. What bothered Cardinals fans about the guy with the sign was not that we didn't miss Pujols, or that we did. It's that we don't know yet. The sign guy was playing into a narrative that outsiders believe exists, but we're not sure about.
Tonight, Albert Pujols will take his first ever at-bat against the St. Louis Cardinals. The game is in Anaheim, not St. Louis, and it's not starting until 10 pm, so it's not going to be as emotional as it would have been if the Cardinals were at home. But it's going to be strange. The reunion is a couple of seasons earlier than I suspect most Cardinals fans would like it to be. We're not quite ready.
When Pujols decided to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in December 2011, it was a shock, but not as much of one as we thought it would be. We always thought he'd be a Cardinals forever, our second Stan the Man; it seemed so perfect to have such an on-field Stan doppleganger that it'd be an outright shame not to have him spend his whole career here too. But we'd been prepared. One of the amusing-in-retrospect subplots to Game Six of the 2011 World Series was how every time Pujols came to bat after the sixth inning, Cardinals fans kept giving him standing ovations, thinking this, no this, no this, might be his last at-bat as a Cardinal. We knew he might leave. Winning the World Series made it a lot easier to say goodbye, even if Pujols insisted in needling management (if never the fans) on the way out the door. We didn't wish him well, exactly, but we didn't wish him harm. Everybody's got the right to make as much money as they can, and more power to him. Just a shame, that's all.
What we didn't expect, but probably should have, was Pujols about to head into a semi-rapid decline. He has picked it up a bit of late, but Angels Pujols is very different than Cardinals Pujols. With St. Louis, he put up an historic .328/.420/.617 over 11 seasons. In Anaheim? .273/.336/.486 over two. (Pujols will be paid a total of $104 million over his 11 years in St. Louis; he will make $240 million over his 10 years with Anaheim, plus $10 million a year over the next 10 after that for not playing.)
Cardinals fans saw this decline happening before he left, actually, though none of us wanted to admit at the time. We saw him swinging at more pitches out of the zone, straining in a way that Pujols never strained, and we saw how fragile he was becoming as he aged. He wasn't missing much time on the disabled list, but he was turning into a lumbering fellow, one who couldn't run out many groundballs and always seemed to be tweaking something. This has cascaded into what's happening in Anaheim now, where he's become a slightly above-average hitter (OPS+: 111, easily the lowest of his career; his previous lows were 148 and 138, over the last two seasons) who is always grimacing and in danger of breaking. Cardinals fans feared that when he was here, but he always fought through it and put up superstar numbers. Angels fans haven't seen that Pujols, at least not every day. Which means they have no peak to compare this valley. They just have this Pujols, not our Pujols … and they have this Pujols for the next eight years. It would be depressing to see if any Cardinals fans were seeing it. As Cardinals writer Dan Moore put it, "The saddest facet of Albert Pujols' decline is that it's happening far away from anybody who cares about it."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are soaring without him. Until a cold stretch over the last week, they had the best record in baseball while also having what's generally considered the best farm system in the game. (The Cardinals are so stacked right now that they're actually two injuries away from calling up No. 1 prospect Oscar Tavares.) And, not for nothing, but one of the main reasons they're in such good shape is because they didn't sign Pujols. Without his $24 million on the payroll every year -- for the next eight years! -- the Cardinals were able to sign Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig to long-term deals and bring in Carlos Beltran for two years and take their time with younger players rather than force them into the lineup.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak is constantly talking about "flexibility," and you can tell he enjoys his job a lot more with Pujols not around. Not because he didn't like Pujols, but because now his job is a lot easier. And he's doing splendidly at it. In a stunning infographic, Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos noted that if Pujols were on the Cardinals right now, he'd be roughly the sixth-best hitter in the lineup. And that's with Tavares and Matt Adams and Kolton Wong unable to break in. It's a terrific time to be a Cardinals fan, and it's in large part because the Cardinals didn't sign Pujols.
So why do we not want to watch Pujols tonight? Why does it feel too soon? I think it's for the reasons Moore talks about above: We just want to pretend that Pujols retired as a Cardinal. We do not want to see him decline, or snipe at Mozeliak, or have Angels fans mad at him for being overpaid. He gave the Cardinals so much -- and still does, through his Pujols Family Foundation, which he runs out of St. Louis, where he lives in the offseason -- and left so suddenly that we want to act like he just vanished all together. We don't want him to do poorly, but we don't want him to be great again either; we just don't want to think about it. Not yet. There will be a reconciliation someday, there has to be, and it still feels like he'll wear a Cardinals hat into the Hall of Fame. It's just kind of sad, regardless.
That is probably the best thing anyone could say about Pujols' time in St. Louis: His leaving has been terrible for him and terrific for the Cardinals … and Cardinals fans are still kind of bummed about it. But just a little. Just kind of.
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