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Pujols & the St. Louis Cardinals: What Will Never Be

My earliest St. Louis Cardinals memory isn't a game I attended or watched on television. It's a singular moment in the history of the franchise and baseball that took place decades before I was born and was preserved for posterity on vinyl. That moment is Stan Musial's 3,000th hit at Wrigley Field on May 13, 1958, a moment I experienced as those who lived it--via the radio call. My grandpa had an LP of the radio calls of great moments in Cardinals history and this was the first great moment he played for me on my grandparents' record player.

I have the 1959 Topps "Baseball Thrills" card with "MUSIAL RAPS OUT 3,000th HIT" across its bottom, from a time when baseball cards were art, paintings of players and moments. While not as gorgeous as a '52 Bowman (what is?), I've always loved it--probably because of the nostalgia of listening to the radio call on LP with my grandpa as a child. The back of the card tells the story of a Wrigley Field that "was alive with excitement" on that day, how "the fans moaned when the starting lineups were announced and Stan's name was absent," how Musial pinch hit to a "fine ovation," but that initial fan reaction "paled in comparison with the cheers that rang through the stands a moment later when Musial connected for a double and had his 3,000th hit."

I have another baseball card, this one from the '62 Topps set. It's a picture of Stan Musial and across the card's bottom it reads, "MUSIAL PLAYS 21ST SEASON." Still in the painting stage of baseball cards but very close to the transition of genuine photographs, the card is presented as tryptic with three stages of Musial's signature swing.

I got these cards from my dad; they were a part of the baseball collection of his childhood and they were merged with my collection. With my first Baseball Encyclopedia, a gift from my parents for Christmas in '87, these cards combined with those of Boyer, Gibson and Brock to form the foundation of my knowledge and love of the St. Louis Cardinals, the prism through which I viewed Ozzie Smith as he played his way into the Hall of Fame, a retired number, and a red jacket.

I wanted this all for Albert Pujols: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 600 home runs, 700 home runs, the Hall of Fame, the retired number, and--most importantly--a red jacket.

In the last series of Albert Pujols's rookie season, the Cardinals squared off against the Houston Astros. This was back at the height of The Killer B's Era in Houston and the Cards and 'Stros were tied atop the Central with three games to play. It was the culmination of a great season of baseball, one which I got to view the bulk of because it began during my second semester of college and ended during my third. When you have Fox Sports Midwest as a part of your college cable package, you have the opportunity to watch a lot of Cardinals baseball and I made the most of it. For the season finale against Houston, my dad and I made the trek down to St. Louis and arrived at Busch early so that we could watch batting practice. We exited the tunnel into the stadium and Pujols was at the plate. Crack! Crack! Crack! Line drive after line drive shot through the crisp September air, several bouncing off the wall in the air. Left-center gap and right-center gap, perfectly placed. The sound of the ball off his bat was like a riffle shot; every pitch seemingly centered perfectly on the bat head. I got my first Pujols shersey that evening.

Pujols won the National League Rookie of the Year that season and finished fourth in the MVP voting after posting a .329/.403/.610 line with 37 homers, 47 doubles, and 130 RBI. His production dipped his sophomore season but then spiked in his third campaign. Pujols posted a .462 wOBA which fueled a 10.3-WAR season. He finished second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds. In 2004, he was a part of the mythical MV3 and contributed 8.4 WAR to the trio's 25.8 WAR total. Pujols established himself as a singular offensive power in 2005, winning his first MVP.

It was about this time that Pujols graduated to a level of super-athlete in my mind as a fan, capable of doing anything. It is a stratosphere that had only ever been occupied by the likes of John Elway, Mark McGwire, and Michael Jordan. There was the MVP season, the homer off of Lidge in the NLDS and then there was April of 2006, in which Pujols cemented his status: 25 G, 14 HR, 32 RBI, .346 BA, .509 OBP, .914 SLG, 1.423 OPS. The 11 homers that followed in May made 76 home runs seem possible; heck, anything seemed possible. I still want to find out what would have happened had he not injured his oblique. But he did. Then the Cards faded down the stretch and limped into the postseason before pulling off their improbable World Series championship of the Pujols era.

Somewhere along the way, as Pujols evolved from phenom to historical great, he began to be linked to Stan Musial. Bernie Miklasz coined the nickname of "El Hombre" for Pujols as an homage to Musial and a nod to Pujols's rapidly growing status in St. Louis. The Musial-Pujols connection from a PR perspective was further intertwined in 2009 with the Post-Dispatch famously featuring the two ballplayers in a picture worth a thousand words--nearly all of them related to the history and tradition of the Cardinals organization. There was one grave oversight in the rush to link Musial and Pujols: Musial never experienced free agency.

Pujols's agent, Dan Lozano, set a deadline for the Cardinals to negotiate an extension with the slugger, whose contract would expire after 2011. In a foreboding twist, the deadline was set for the day that Musial would be awarded the Presidential Medial of Freedom by President Obama at the White House. The deadline was pushed back a day, but the media coverage of the negotiations still pulled media focus away from Musial and towards Pujols. No deal was reached.

In a second press conference after Pujols chose to accept a ten-year, $254 million contract with the Angels, it was revealed that the Cardinals were hesitant to provide Pujols with a personal services provision in their offer. From what I gather, such a provision sets forth an agreement where a club pays a player to be an ambassador for the team. It seems that Pujols wanted the Cardinals to agree to pay him to wear a red jacket while standing in the company of Ozzie, Gibby, and Lou in a position currently occupied by Musial. Reading between the lines--an act that is always dangerous--it seems that Pujols's euphemism of "commitment" includes not only a failure to pay him an extra $44 million during the span of a ten-year contract to play but also to pay him to interact with Cardinal Nation when he is retired. This is where Pujols lost me. Try as I might I cannot empathize with the position taken by Pujols, a man who is already a hundred-millionaire. It saddens me because I not only wanted to see Pujols finish his career as a Cardinal but to also see him as a red-jacketed ambassador for the franchise when his playing days are over.

I have only ever been lucky enough to see Musial in person at Busch Stadium once in my life. I wept like a child. Then again, I do the same thing when I'm watching a Musial appearance on television or when reading a Posnanski article on The Man in Sports Illustrated or an anecdote in Vescey's book. There is a connection between Musial and fans that I don't know if we'll ever see again but I think we might have had Pujols stayed. And while I knew all about Musial's on-the-field accomplishments, his playing days were over about two decades before I was born. Musial exists largely in sepia-toned black-and-white photographs, painted portraits on faded cardboard, and scratchy vinyl recordings of all-time milestones. Pronounced "Baseball's Perfect Knight" and "The Greatest Cardinal Of Them All," Musial's nickname is ironically "The Man." Ironic because he long ago ascended from mere mortal to legend.

Pujols was a man, a player that I've witnessed, a human whose surliness and pride are as evident to me as his athletic prowess and altruism. I wanted to be able to tell my children about his 3,000th hit as a Cardinal, his 500th homer, and more. I wanted to get goosebumps at his entrance during the pre-game ceremonies at future World Series. I wanted Pujols to take his rightful place amongst the all-time St. Louis greats and become a living legend. I understand why none of this will come to be and I've largely reconciled it. But that doesn't change what I wanted in my Cardinals fan heart.