I remember getting the call exactly nine years ago on the morning of Dec. 8, 2011. And despite the intense speculation about the imminent departure of Albert Pujols from the Cardinals, it was still stunning to receive word that it actually happened.
After 11 sensational seasons for the Cardinals, Pujols was leaving as a free agent. During the night, before the sun came up, he’d agreed to a massive 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels.
The unhappy call came from Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, who was about to board a flight to come home from Dallas, the site of the annual baseball meetings. Mozeliak was down, and perhaps still in a mild state of shock. The Angels’ aggressive bid emerged suddenly, and the transaction got completed at a fast rate.
The Cardinals had offered Pujols a 10-year deal — but for less money and with a significant amount of deferred salary. Another factor in the decision: Pujols had resented the Cardinals slow-play approach to the negotiations.
“This is hard,” Mozeliak told me that morning. “I’ve had better days. But feel positive about the effort we made to keep Albert in St. Louis. We tried a number of ways to make it work. Ultimately, he chose a different direction.”
Wow. It was over. Just like that. The Pujols Era in St. Louis. A glorious run that featured seven postseasons, three NL pennants, and two World Series championships. And Pujols, a three-time National League MVP, had given 11 years of elite machinelike production. His place was secure among the all-time Cardinals greats. Only one of the hitting legends, Stan Musial, had exceeded Albert’s body of work while wearing the Birds on the Bat. In MLB history, only one position player (Ted Williams) had accumulated more Wins Above Replacement than Pujols in the first 10 seasons of a career.
I’m not trying to relitigate the Pujols-Cardinals contract impasse. If any sour feelings had remained, the bitterness was completely washed away in June 2019 when Pujols returned to play at Busch Stadium for the first time since becoming an Angel. Albert was a member of the visiting team, but that was a mere technicality. The Cardinals and their fans embraced Pujols all weekend in a three-day hugfest, a three-day standing-ovation ceremony. It was a loving, wonderful weekend in every way. And a clear sentiment emerged: Pujols was back home, all was forgiven, and would always be a part of this special baseball family.
The Cardinals have done well since the breakup, making it to six postseasons, winning another NL pennant, and reaching the NLCS four times. Pujols has appeared in one postseason as an Angel. And without delving into the stats too much — what’s the point? — Pujols was 70 percent above league average offensively as a Cardinal, based on OPS+. As an Angel, he’s been only nine percent above league average through his first nine seasons in Anaheim.
The age-related decline was predictable and inevitable. Over his last four seasons Pujols supplied offense at a rate of 13 percent below league average and has limped through injuries that decreased his speed and range. And that’s OK. This usually happens to the best of the best — in any sport — when a lengthy career winds down.
Pujols turns 41 next month, and he’ll go into his final season with the Angels with a remarkable set of career numbers that include 662 home runs (fifth all time), 2,100 RBIs (third), 3,239 hits (15th), and 1,347 extra-base hits (fifth.)
Pujols hasn’t ruled out the idea of playing beyond 2021. He isn’t chasing stats, but it’s also true that he needs only 38 homers to reach 700 for his career.
In an interview with Dan McLaughlin here on Scoops With Danny Mac, the Angels broadcaster Victor Rojas raised a tantalizing scenario in discussing King Albert’s future: A farewell season in St. Louis.
Because of the Covid 19 pandemic that severely shortened MLB’s 2020 schedule, Pujols appeared in only 39 games last season.
“Based on what Albert had done (in 2019), we’re thinking ‘Man he’s got two years left on his deal, and if he gets to 15, 20 home runs this year, we’ve got a chance of a story of chasing 700 (homers,” Rojas told Danny Mac. “An outside chance. We thought that this would be something that we would be talking about (in 2021.) Unfortunately, that’s not the case Covid cut the season down to 60 games, and he’s got one more year left.
“Now, if he goes off (in 2021) … let’s just say he hits 20. Mark Gubicza, my broadcast partner, and I keep telling each other ‘You know, if there’s ever a shot for him to make it to 700 I would not be surprised if he tried to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals, especially if there’s a universal DH, and to hit 700 there.It would be just so storybook.”
This is unlikely, but it sure is fun to think about it. Either way, Pujols will always be a Cardinal. And on a personal note, I want to say that it was a privilege to cover him for 11 seasons. It was the highlight of my writing career, having a chance to witness his extraordinary sustained excellence that fueled so much winning.
Despite being gone for nine years, Pujols still ranks second in franchise history in homers, RBIs, doubles and slugging; third in runs and WAR; and fourth in hits and onbase percentage. Pujols may have left — but but he left an indelible mark on St. Louis Cardinals history.
READING TIME, 5 MINUTES
Happy birthday to Red Berenson (age 81), one of the most popular Blues to wear The Note/ And retired St. Louis football Cardinals linebacker E.J. Junior is 61 … Mizzou running back Larry Rountree will go down as one of the great players in program history that somehow remained under the radar. … old friend Duane Lewis, who spent 10 years with the St. Louis Rams in media-relations and communications, was in town last weekend for the Arkansas-Pine Bluff at St. Louis U. college basketball game. Lewis is the senior associate athletic director at Pine Bluff, and he enjoyed driving around St. Louis, reliving fond memories of the “Greatest Show” Rams — including the dazzling run to the Super Bowl championship by the 1999 team.
Just in case you missed this: Late during Mizzou’s pulsating win over visiting Arkansas, pro golfer John Daly went to Twitter to complain about Missouri defenders delaying the flow of the game by falling down after plays. The big fella loves his Razorbacks, so let him growl. “We need to clean up the integrity of the game & get this type of coaching penalized,” Daly wrote. “Missouri did this 5-6 times & SEC refs DID NOTHING!!”
Daly was set straight in a Twitter response from retired official Terry McAulay.
“There is nothing game officials can do,” he wrote. “If a player is down, they are obliged to stop the game regardless. This is an ethics issue that the conference has to address. The rules committee recently discussed some type of punitive punishments but made no changes to the rules.”
In an interview with Chris Hrabe, which you can access on our site, Cardinals infielder-outfielder Tommy Edman discussed the team’s decision to decline picking up the $11.5 million option on second baseman Kolten Wong for 2021.”I think we were all just as surprised as everybody else,” Edman said. “You definitely are a better team when you got a player as good as Kolten, after winning his second gold glove in a row. We will miss him for sure — assuming he doesn’t come back. From what I’ve heard there’s still a chance that he comes back. So that’s still definitely a possibility. But yeah, will miss him for sure if he goes to another team and just hope that he doesn’t crush us too much when we play against him.”
Lance Lynn and Tony La Russa, reunited? Yep. Monday night, the rebuilding Rangers traded Lynn to the emerging White Sox for two prospects including Chicago’s No. 5 overall prospect. Lynn, of course, pitched for La Russa as a rookie in 2011. He’s gone on to have a solid, admirable, and underrated career. Smart move by the White Sox. They’re on the verge of becoming one of baseball’s most formidable teams, and coveted to Lynn to give their rotation a “Big Three” alignment of Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lynn. The three starters finished seventh, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the AL Cy Young voting for 2020. Lynn is in the third and final season of a three-year $30 million contract; he’s is set to make an $8 million salary this season. In his three seasons after leaving the Cardinals as a free agent, Lynn is tied for 9th among MLB starting pitchers with 10.8 WAR, and ranks 13th for most innings pitched.
* I’m tired of instant replay in all sports. It’s intrusive and boring and most replays take much longer than necessary. And we can’t count on the replay official to get it right. Enough already …
* I need help. I have to convince Mrs. Bernie that HBO Max is worth the monthly fee. I think she’s gonna be stubborn about this, dammit. Love her anyway.
* As of now, Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith is clearly the best player in college football this season, so why are Heisman voters obsessing (as always) over quarterbacks? Open your eyes, people.
TALKING WITH SHILTY:
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was my first guest on my new KFNS 590-AM radio show, and I asked him about the possibility of losing Adam Wainwright and/or Yadier Molina. Both are free agents who want to stay with the Cardinals but nothing is assured.
“It would be a challenge, Shildt said. “My job is to accept challenges and manage what is given to us. And we know at some point those storied careers will come to a close in St. Louis. It’s just the reality that everybody faces. These are two high-character, winning people. It’s no coincidence that these two pillars of our team have allowed us to be successful. And they’re a big part of that. You can’t quantify it, but you can’t minimize it either. Their position on our club is real. Their importance of how they steward things when things don’t go quite well, or how they help a younger player. Quite candidly they’ve been a great resource for me as a younger manager. Now I’ve established myself a little bit more at this level. But I’m smart enough to rely on them, and appreciate what they say and how they say it. I work with them, and we’re in this together.
“These are two tremendous resources on our team, not just from a physical standpoint and a talent standpoint — but also a character, culture and identity standpoint. My hope is that it gets worked out, and they come back. Everybody has a similar hope. It is a business, and they are free agents, and other camps, rightfully so, are trying to lure them into their organization. I can confidently say that I know St. Louis and the ownership and front office would like to have them back. And I’m confident that Waino and Yadi want to be back. And clearly I want to have them back.”
AS OTHERS SEE US:
Bleacher Report put together a ranking of teams most likely to land free-agent slugger Kyle Schwarber. Writer Zachary D. Rymer listed the Cardinals at No. 5 behind (in order) the White Sox, Blue Jays, Twins and Braves.
“After the year they just had, nobody needs an influx of power as badly as the St. Louis Cardinals, Rymer wrote. “Though the caveat is that they only played 58 games, the Cardinals ranked dead last in hitting only 51 home runs in 2020. Brad Miller and Tyler O’Neill tied for the team lead with seven long balls, and the former is now a free agent. After six seasons in the NL Central, Schwarber is obviously plenty familiar with the Cardinals. And if he fancies getting back at the Cubs for pulling the rug out from under him, he may be all the more eager to take the Cardinals’ call. There’s a chance, though, that Schwarber would be reluctant to play at Busch Stadium on a regular basis. The 28 games he’s experienced there throughout his career have yielded an ugly .155/.287/.268 batting line and only three home runs.”
I hope you enjoyed the return of The Bits.
Most of these Bits columns will come in shorter than this first serving but I wanted to let it fly today.
As always thanks for reading.
Bernie Miklasz hosts the afternoon-drive show at 590 The Fan, KFNS, each weekday from 3 to 6 p.m. You can stream it live or catch the post-show podcast at 590thefan.com