No sooner had Albert Pujols turned his back on the St. Louis Cardinals for the riches of Southern California than they posted guards to surround his statue outside the Pujols 5 restaurant in St. Louis.
Some people will attempt to paint Pujols's 10-year, $254-million (all currency U.S.) contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as just another greedy athlete going for the big money, jilting a city that nurtured his career and fell in love with him.
But Phat Albert is no King James. Pujols, whose new contract is conditional on his passing a physical, won three most valuable player awards with the Cardinals and he also brought them two World Series titles. Now he becomes a thermonuclear weapon in the Battle for Los Angeles, as the Angels not only stake a claim to a return to the playoffs but buttress themselves for a day when the Los Angeles Dodgers are out from under the muddled ownership of Frank McCourt.
Speaking at the final day of baseball's winter meetings, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto called Pujols "an iconic offensive player," who was "so much more than a baseball player. "We're very excited for what it does, how it affects our market, Southern California.
"Winning," Dipoto added, "breeds interest."
You know how that statement will play in Toronto. This was a week in which Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had to defend himself against charges he'd called out the team's fan base when he said increased attendance was a necessary precursor to a $120-million payroll, amending it to increased revenues, and telling a reporter at a morning scrum on Thursday he did not want to go over payroll "parameters" or "borders" any more but would rather focus on what he's trying to do with the team. Nobody in Toronto seems to know any more what the chicken or egg is, let alone which comes first.
The business of the game moves on, and now it's Scott Boras and Prince Fielder on the clock.
Pujols is no LeBron. Pujols cut the Cardinals a hometown discount in 2004 when he signed a seven-year, $100-million contract extension. Last season, he was the second highest-paid player on his team (behind Matt Holliday) and didn't have a place in the top 25 list overall. Shoot, he was well behind his new teammate, former Blue Jay Vernon Wells, who shook his head as he stood beside a TV studio at the Hilton Anatole on Thursday. Four years ago, on Dec. 8, Wells was celebrating his 29th birthday and a seven-year, $125-million contract extension.
"This is cooler," Wells said, comparing his 33rd birthday to his 29th. "It's a different year, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox not involved [in free agency] But they don't need pieces like this. They've done their share of shopping. It's good to see other teams get involved."
Dipoto is a rookie GM who got his shot when Tony Regins was fired this fall, in part for taking on Wells's contract last winter. Dipoto was on the offensive as he was pressed about giving out a contract to a player whose listed age (31) is based on a Dominican Republic birth certificate, the legitimacy of which has long been questioned. What if Pujols is, oh, 34 or 35?
"He's an honourable man, a very respectful man, and I'm not a scientist," DiPoto said. "I can't tell you where he is. But he hits like he's 27."
What's that old saying: Go west, young man of indeterminable age?
What a winter this has been: The Miami Marlins spent $191-million on free agents (the $106-million given to Jose Reyes is more than their total payroll from the past two years combined) and were willing to give Pujols a deal that was worth more than the Angels' due to Florida's lack of state taxes, while offering to sponsor free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson's racing car as part of an offer that was actually higher than the modest five-year, $75-million contract he took from the Angels.
Just as Pujols is no LeBron, the Cardinals aren't the Cleveland Cavaliers. They'll do fine, because they have pitching and defence and smart people and a huge regional fan base. This is the team of Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, folks. The same strong, historical bonds that would have made Pujols decide to stay in St. Louis will not be worn away. Truth is, his work is done there.