As some of you know, I have a brother 16 years my junior. He's 10 years old. All he's ever known is Albert Pujols, the Cardinals Player. It was never Albert Pujols, the baseball player. The connection between players and teams that, as we get older, becomes less important is extremely poignant to the youngest fans. What follows is my conversation with him (edited for clarity) about the last few days.
Azru: So what did you think about Albert Pujols going to the Angels?
Little Robot: I thought it was a cheapshot. Because he told everybody that ... he said it wasn't about the money but then he went for the big cash.
Azru: Is going to be weird watch him on another team?
Little Robot: Yea. Because I've seen him on the Cardinals so much that it's made me used to the Cardinals and him. I don't know which player I'm going to like now.
Azru: Do you know what team he's going to?
Little Robot: Yea
Azru: What team?
Little Robot: The Los Angeles Angels.
Azru: Do you know where that's at?
Little Robot: It's in Anaheim. California.
Azru: Are you still going to watch the Cardinals next year?
Little Robot: Yea.
Azru: Are you excited about them?
Little Robot: Yes because we'll see if they get a player good enough to replace Albert. I think Prince Fielder is that kind of person to be thinking about.
Azru: What makes you say that?
Little Robot: Because he's a home run hitter too, like Albert, and he's a first baseman. So he's kind of like Albert's "brother" hitting-wise.
Azru: Who is your favorite player on the team now?
Little Robot: [long pause] I really don't know. I like Berkman, I like Holliday, I like Freese. I like Carpenter and Wainwright. And I like Craig and Yadi.
Azru: But Albert was your favorite?
Little Robot: Yea.
Azru: How did you hear about him leaving?
Little Robot: I guess Mom told me. I was pretty sad and mad.
Azru: Just because he went for the money?
Little Robot: And because he left the team and people that liked him the most.
Azru:Do you know anything about Allen Craig's pet?
Little Robot: His name's Torty and he's a tortoise. And someone on twitter has an account called TortyCraig.
Azru: Will you always think of Albert as a Cardinal?
Little Robot: Yes.
Azru: So if he retires and goes into the Hall of Fame, do you think he should go in as a Cardinal?
Little Robot: Yes because he spent his best time with the Cardinals. When did he start with us?
Little Robot: Oh. [pause] So when I was born. [pause] I have all those Albert jerseys. We're going to have to change my poster in my room now because it has Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick.
Azru: What are you going to do with all your jerseys?
Little Robot: Take them to the games I go to because people still were Edmonds jerseys when they go there.
Azru: Do you think the Cardinals should have given Albert more money?
Little Robot: No. I think it was a good enough price and if he wants more money, he wants more money. I just think he should have stayed with the Cardinals.
Azru: What is your favorite memory of Albert?
Little Robot: Him hitting three home runs in the World Series game. I think it was game number 5.
Azru: [pauses while typing]
Little Robot: What position did Stan Musial play?
Azru: He played the outfield.
Little Robot: Oh did you see on I think it was channel 2 or 4. Stan Musial actually asked Albert to stay with the Cardinals. I actually got to see Stan Musial. He looks really old.
Azru: What do you know about Stan Musial?
Little Robot: In his career he got over 3,000 hits. He stayed with the Cardinals his whole career even if he didn't get top dollar from them.
Azru: Did you know he fought in WWII?
Little Robot: He did?
Azru: Yep. He took a couple years off to fight for our country.
Little Robot: He's that old? Oh, my PE teacher said he has a Stan Musial jersey? And I think Albert shouldn't have left the Cardinals because they just put up a statue of him. Are we almost done?
Azru: Almost, hold on. Do you think Albert was the best Cardinals player ever?
Little Robot: No.
Azru: Who do you think was?
Little Robot: Stan Musial. But I think [Albert] is one of the best Cardinal players. I bet the Angels don't know that he's been hitting less homeruns every year now. They shouldn't have offered him that because soon he's only going to hit like 15 homeruns a season and he's not going to have a good batting average. This year he hit into the most double plays or something like that.
Azru: If Albert had stayed with the Cardinals, do you think that he would have been better than Stan Musial eventually?
Little Robot: No. Well, maybe. It would be close.
Azru: But now he can never have that?
Little Robot: [quickly reply] Nope. That's gone.
This whole discussion was spur of the moment. We were decorating the Christmas tree (something he and I do together every year) and I casually asked him the opening question. After his response with the phrase "cheapshot", I was interested to hear more of what this whole thing has been like for people who are, in the purest sense of the word, fans. He doesn't understand the nuances of statistics or even have all the particulars of the contracts right. That doesn't matter to him. His favorite player just left his favorite team.
I'm sure that Albert Pujols made the decision that he thought was best. There are plenty of reasons or sets of decision calculus that allow you to arrive, rationally, at the decision he did. I'm not here to argue that he's wrong.
If you ever wonder what he walked away from though, this is it.
The chance to be an eternal hero for a generation of Cardinals fans. That's all these kids have known. Albert Pujols was a Cardinal. In many ways, he was THE Cardinals. That's what Albert turned his back on. I'm not making a value judgment on that decision, I'll leave that to all of you, but to young fans, he walked away from their favorite team and they can't quite understand why.
The Angels are not a particularly storied franchise. They do not have a Stan Musial in their history. Albert Pujols could leave Anaheim in 10 years as the best player that team has ever had.
He had the chance to do the same in St. Louis. He could have been right along side The Man in Cardinal lore. El Hombre. Now? That's gone.