Albert Pujols; Albert Pujols and the Cardinals

I don't blame Albert Pujols for wanting a contract that said he was Albert Pujols; it's been clear all along that he's the kind of guy who is driven by nebulous ideas of respect and disrespect—a Tony La Russa player from the moment La Russa declared him the best he'd ever managed—and the Los Angeles Angels offered him more Respect Units, and a team that is a reasonable facsimile of a contending one, with players that used to be contending players, and that was that.

I don't blame the Cardinals, either, though I'm still a little mystified by the choices they ended up making; the Cardinals have drawn millions with successful teams before Pujols and they will after Pujols, and coming off a World Championship, with the NBA-wide turn on LeBron James still fresh in national sportswriters' Narrative Generators, this was the perfect moment to not resign Pujols and still, in 2012, be the best-fans-in-baseball Cardinals. Lance Berkman is popular enough to subvert the Albert Pujols comparisons and old enough not to fall victim to them.

Both parties concerned come out of this non-deal looking better than they might have in other years and with other teams—the Cardinals don't dump Pujols after a losing season and claim rebuilding, and Pujols doesn't dump the Cardinals in favor of Jeffrey Loria, whose final contract offer was, sources report, a hotel-stationary crayon drawing of both of them jumping into enormous piles of Susan B. Anthony dollars.

Both sides made the right move; both sides are in great position to achieve baseball and public-relations success next year. I think both sides made a huge mistake.

Now Albert Pujols is 32 and forced to prove himself again and to do it in Los Angeles, where proving yourself is a matter of constant reassertion of your desire to win, your desire to look like you desire to win, your desire to not piss off Bill Plaschke by failing to be Paul LoDuca again. He's got bad legs and he's past his nominal and observed prime and odds are good that he will be really great instead of really really great, and a really great player that watches his home runs and limps around the bases and makes unbelievably stubborn moves while rounding third base.

If he'd stayed in St. Louis all of that would be swaddled in all of this: Breaking team and MLB records, competing for division championships, the memory of those World Series wins and those accomplishments from his stint, between 2003 and 2009, as maybe the best first baseman who'd ever lived. In Los Angeles, short of a second peak, he won't be that—he won't be Alex Rodriguez, hated even with the Rangers, the master of creepy and noncommittal body language and interviews, but he won't be Albert Pujols either.

Now the Cardinals will have to prove every year that they're competitive. They have one of the most expensive outfielders in baseball on the roster but you won't recognize that from their press; without the easy pull of Pujols as shorthand for a contending team the Cardinals will lack, at least for a while, an obvious identity as World Series contenders.

Having just won the World Series, of course, they have a year or two to establish one. But these Cardinals have thrown off the popular identity that had been handed to them, and this is a team that's thrived, both in the moment and in the constant retellings of its famous history, on teams with identities—the Gashouse Gang, El Birdos, Whiteyball, Mark McGwire and company, MV3 and then just Pujols, alone, the best player in baseball.

The 2012 Cardinals are the 1996 Cardinals—competitive and diffuse, a team apart from what they'd be eventually and what they were before. That weird collective anonymity comes from the Cardinals making a mistake and Pujols making a different mistake, but if there's any consolation to take from this ugly, tangled mess of half-true PR statements and five-year-old interviews it's this: The 1996 Cardinals were fun to watch.

The 2012 Cardinals won't look like any Cardinals team we've seen since 2001, and by April I'll probably be okay with that.

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