- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Stay Albert Stay

Except for my standard-issue human blood and my mother’s accusations that I harbored “Bolshevik” sympathies as a nine-year-old McGovernite, you won’t find a drop of red in me. No Cardinal red, certainly. Ptui! on the 1985 Cardinals. Ptui! on the 1987 Cardinals. Ptui! on the Best Fans In Baseball. A Niagara Falls of loogies on Yadier Molina, obviously.

And yet, I don’t want Albert Pujols to leave the Cardinals [1]. Not even for the pipe dream of seeing Albert Pujols pull up stakes from St. Louis and put them down for some strange reason in Flushing do I want to see Albert Pujols leave the Cardinals.

This is pure baseball fan romanticism at work. This isn’t Albert Pujols exercising the freedom of movement Marvin Miller labored so hard to ensure. This isn’t knowing how much he may be fuming at the Cardinal front office these days and how, like any employee, he might have had it with his upper management. I’ve had it with his upper management, on principle, anyway. I heard the GM of the Cardinals, John Mozeliak, issue some flat corporate statement the other day after Pujols’s deadline for signing an extension passed, as if Mozeliak had the right to embody the franchise and Pujols — “part of our organization in 2011” —  is some interchangeable commodity. I was truly offended by the notion that John Mozeliak gets to speak as if he, not Pujols, represents what it means to be a St. Louis Cardinal.

And I don’t even like the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yet now and then a fan recognizes there are more transcendent issues than a single contract or a behemoth bat coming onto the market. Albert Pujols is the Cardinals like Stan Musial [2] was the Cardinals. Like Cal Ripken was the Orioles. Like an almost infinitesimal handful of ballplayers every generation are their team and better baseball because they wear one team’s uniform and excel in that team’s cap and never star at a press conference at which they try on some alien color scheme.

No. Don’t wanna see it. Don’t wanna see Albert Pujols in a non-Cardinal uniform almost as much as I don’t want to see Albert Pujols come up in extra innings against the Mets (a situation in which he’s filleted one of our relievers every year for the last three years). I don’t even wanna see Albert Pujols as a Met.

It’s not that I don’t want an Albert Pujols on the Mets. I just want the Albert Pujols to stay on the Cardinals.

I’m happy with Pujols weaving his immortality in another division, and will roll the dice that our pitchers will limit his damage unto us when there is a crossing of paths. Competition’s OK. Bring on their guy, and let’s cheer for our guy to get him out.

Or maybe walk him on four pitches if there’s a runner on second and first base is open.

Aside from believing that baseball’s integrity is preserved when its absolute crop cream stays forever ensconced from whence it rose, I just assume that some hypothetical fantasyland signing of Albert Pujols by the Mets would go horribly awry. That’s not kneejerk fatalism. That’s my wary conclusion after watching the Mets give out lengthy mammoth contracts to superstars who made reasonable sense in the short- and mid-term and became disastrous or at least truly burdensome albatrosses before their deals expired.

George Foster. Gary Carter. Bobby Bonilla I. Mike Piazza. Pedro Martinez. Carlos Beltran. Billy Wagner. Now Johan Santana, a truly excellent pitcher when not aging or injured — and suddenly not such a bargain. Wouldn’t have skipped the chance to get him. Understood there were risks involved that had nothing to do with the minimal fortunes that awaited Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Carlos Gomez. Did the math that told us A Ton of Money + A Mighty Long Time = Who Knew What? and accepted the equation. It was as worth it as the kind of thing can be.

It was. I love that Johan Santana became a Met instead of staying a Twin (which he wasn’t going to stay anyway). I remain enchanted that he didn’t wind up a Red Sock (or worse) when it was generally thought the Mets were a long shot to procure his services. I’ll always remain thankful he was on our side during the last week Shea Stadium operated considering little else was.

But geez that was a lot of bucks invested against an asset that hasn’t exactly appreciated since its first year on the books. Johan Santana didn’t finish the 2009 campaign. Johan Santana didn’t finish the 2010 campaign. Johan Santana won’t begin the 2011 campaign. The Mets have Johan Santana under contract through 2013 (with an option for 2014), yet starting pitching cannot be considered a Mets strength presently.

It’s not kneejerk fatalism to suggest that this always seems to happen to us. There’s often a terrific upfront payoff. Carter, Piazza, Pedro, Beltran, Wagner…they all delivered big-time within their first two seasons. Santana surely did in 2008 and during the first months of 2009. It is conceivable (as opposed to not inconceivable) that starting sometime in the second half of 2011 he’ll be his magnificent Johan self again. But boy is there unenviable precedent — Carter, Piazza, Pedro, Beltran, Wagner — hinting he won’t.

Our payroll blues are supposed to lift (Madoff mishegas pending) after 2011. No more Castillo. No more Perez. No more Beltran. If the vest can somehow avoid buttoning, no more Rodriguez. Reyes? Maybe no more, maybe far more of a payday for him. Wright will be in line for a boost or a boot of his own after 2012. Bay…let’s hope we get that big second year out of him the way we got it out of Beltran in 2006, but there’s still $48 million coming his way after this year. And plop atop all that $49.5 million owed Johan Santana for 2012 and 2013.

Thus, I can’t imagine, if he truly splits from St. Louis, that whatever it is Albert Pujols will want/would merit could be coming to him in Queens. And if it somehow did? If Albert Pujols suddenly decided blue and orange were his colors of choice?

I can only cringe at the vision of his first serious injury…as a Met; his first significant falloff…as a Met; his first positive test…as a Met; his first negative back page…the first of many as a Met. Maybe the kneejerk fatalism is overcoming me here, but it wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t. Albert Pujols would rapidly descend into Alfredo Pedrique [3] in no time as a Met.

I’m almost certain that Albert Pujols, had he been drafted by the Mets instead of the Cardinals, would not have grown into Albert Pujols. He would not have posted the best first ten seasons of any player ever [4]. He would have… what? Become Prentice Redman [5] (picked two rounds ahead of Pujols by the Mets in 1999)? Maybe a modestly productive John Milner or frustrating Gregg Jefferies type? Would have Albert Pujols in an alternate universe been, at best, Darryl Strawberry or David Wright, the top position players we ever produced? Maybe Cleon Jones, who was very good but rarely great? Maybe Robert Stratton, a big-time power prospect who never made it to the majors?

How is it possible, as long as fantasyland is spiraling into urban blight, that we’ve barely produced a remote facsimile of Albert Pujols? Strawberry and Wright, terrific as they were and are only approached Prince Albert’s level. They never resided there. Even if you acknowledge Albert’s level is the unreachable star, you’d figure once in a half-century it would be a possible dream to have a homegrown Met turn into something like that. It didn’t happen for Strawberry and it’s not happening for Wright. Reyes and Edgardo Alfonzo…not in the same league. Jones and Jefferies…uh-uh. Ed Kranepool…we love him, but Prince Edward he wasn’t.

Pitching we’ve developed, but the lab goes haywire when it comes to hitters. Has our scouting and instructing and coaching and leadership been that totally lacking for fifty years that all but a handful of our most substantial offensive contributors have had to come from somewhere else?

Maybe we’re turning a corner. Maybe Ike Davis will live up to my aspirations for him to at least back up Pujols in a few All-Star games. Maybe he and Thole and Tejada are the foundation for a franchise that under new and sound guidance won’t need to throw too many dollars and too many years at the biggest name that floats by every couple of winters. Maybe the next Pujols who whets our appetite will loom as icing rather than cake.