This is great theatre that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are providing during the National League Championship Series. But just wait until the off-season
Pujols and Fielder are one-man, franchise-changing offensive machines and stats factories and with both free agents, it is a bounty that may not be seen again for some time. And about four hours north of here, another Central Division team, the Chicago Cubs, has knocked the game sideways by agreeing to terms with Theo Epstein to be the general manager.
The slayer of the Curse of the Bambino now tries his hand at ending the Cubs’ 103-year World Series drought. True, Epstein has some bad contracts and bad players and bad people – in the case of pitcher Carlos Zambrano, a couple of those intersect – and he has been charged not just with blowing his brains out on salaries but also pouring resources into scouting and player development. But the Cubs are getting ready to approach Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to finalize public funding for a refurbishment of Wrigley Field – the figure $200-million has been bandied about – and since the city is essentially broke, a sexy, jaw-dropping move wouldn’t hurt. Do not bet against Epstein getting one of Fielder or Pujols.
It isn’t surprising that both players have gone about their business this postseason by blithely deflecting questions about their future – for the most part, doing so in a manner that suggests they really aren’t all that concerned with it. Pujols, of course, already has a World Series ring from 2006 and three most-valuable-player awards and holds Cardinals postseason records for home runs, hits, runs and runs batted in. His off-season thought process, then, will be different from Fielder, who is younger, represented by Scott Boras (whose rule is take the money) and focused solely on “adding a ring to the MVP award,” which in his case is the 2011 All-Star Game MVP.
Performance in the postseason is overrated when it comes to determining free-agent value. C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers, for example, will get his this winter despite a so-so playoffs because general managers let fans, sports writers and broadcasters argue about what defines “clutchness;” they’d rather just look at a body of work.
But reputations can be burnished and minds put at ease in the playoffs: Pujols has put to rest all those concerns raised early in the season about nagging health and about his ability to maintain focus on the verge of one of the biggest paydays in baseball history. He is very much a player described by teammate Chris Carpenter as having “a mind of stone,” completely impervious to the outside.
And Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who works on what amounts to a year-to-year contract here, has turned in one of his finest seasons yet.
La Russa can sometimes seem snippy, but he has been expansive and at times satisfied during this postseason. There is a sense he is, like Pujols and Fielder, living in the moment. He’s certainly managing in the moment: his handling of the bullpen has been a difference-maker, and Friday he described his philosophy as “try to make it as hard for [the opposition]to score in that inning, to the extent you can.” Makes sense, no?
Yes, you manage in the moment in the postseason and you live in the moment, too.
“What’s the expression: history is replete?” La Russa asked. “I saw Cal Ripken on Thursday, and in 1983, he played on a team that won the World Series. He thought that would be something that would happen at least once again. Never happened again. The message you want to send is that the real exciting part is playing in October. If you have a chance to be on a club that’s got a chance to win, this may be your last chance. Sounds a bit ‘coachy,’ but if the players really challenge you, you can show them all kinds of examples.”
All else – including the slaying of curses and exorcising of ghosts – must wait.