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A Tale of Two Sluggers

It is practically uncouth to bemoan Albert Pujols's decision to sign a ten-year deal with the Angels. We've known forever that in modern times sports has become a business above all, and that if there wasn't money to be made from putting butts into seats, many a baseball player might now be working at the Citgo.*

However, even in spite of the fact that it was perhaps the logical business decision for Pujols to sign for $254 million over the next decade (and leapfrogging far, far over the head of Adrian Gonzalez in the process), that doesn't necessarily mean it was the right thing to do. There's no doubt that Pujols is a once-in-a-generation talent, and will love playing in the American League, and will make a huge impact for years to come both as a first baseman and in the future as a designated hitter. But that really ignores the point that what Pujols has done is only a few steps above what Johnny Damon did when joining the Yankees after the 2005 season.

There are certain players who become synonymous with a franchise. If you think about that team, that player immediately comes to mind. With the Mariners, for instance, there's no doubt that Ichiro is far and away their "face." (King Felix may usurp that throne, too, someday, but only following Ichiro's retirement.) In New York, Jeter and Rivera split those honors today. For the Cardinals of the late 2000's and early 2010's—indeed, until just this afternoon, that player was Albert Pujols.

When you have a player that climbs onto that exalted plain in the minds, and hearts, of an entire franchise, the rules do change. What might work for another player—even a better player—from the same franchise really can't be countenanced. Your typical player should absolutely do whatever he feels best in free agency, and such moves should be accepted on the part of a fan base with gratitude for services rendered, and the promise of future support (plus booing, as is appropriate when a beloved star goes to a hated rival). But when a player is indelibly linked with a team's rise and fall, when the stars align and produce that rare marriage of fame and talent (even if somewhat dimmed by the onslaughts of time), there is some loyalty owed to the franchise as well.

Now, by this, I don't mean that the player should just accept whatever is handed to him and be grateful. I said that there was some loyalty owed, not unflagging fidelity! It would be naive and foolhardy for a franchise to expect that in return. However, what I mean by this is that last million or two extra per year should not be responsible for a player moving away from the club that made him.

If there's a fundamental and irreconcilable difference—the player wants a eight-year deal, and the club only wants to offer four—then of course a visit to the free-agency talent pool is not unreasonable. However, all reports indicate that the Cardinals did indeed offer Pujols a ten-year deal. This means that, ultimately, the issue came down to a matter of loyalty versus money. For Pujols, the money talked, and now he'll be playing in the American League instead of the National League. He'll also be playing for a rather blasé fan base who are not nearly as dedicated to the craft of baseball watching as St. Louis's. He might have some fans won over immediately—he is Pujols, after all—but the unstinting support he would have had had he remained with the Cardinals, will now have to be re-earned.

Furthermore, as a result of today's deal, Pujols joins the club with that paragon of all baseball virtue, Alex Rodriguez, in becoming baseball mercenaries who will simply seek out the highest bidder. I certainly hope that the Angels haven't offered Pujols an opt-out in his contract (à la Rodriguez and C. C. Sabathia).

In contrast to this, you have players like David Ortiz, who is as much a fixture in Fenway as Pujols was at Busch. Other than Pedro Martinez and Dustin Pedroia, there is not another face that is as closely tied to the history of the Sox in the twenty-first century, and you can argue that his contributions have been even more important, given that he's been on both of the World Series teams.

But if you've looked at his contract history, you'll see that the only time he's ever gone on the free-agent market was after the 2002 season—that is, when he signed with the Red Sox. Since then, he's been resigned to deal after deal: one-year contracts in 2003 and 2004, a two-year extension in 2004, a four-year extension in 2006, the club option last year, and arbitration this year. Not only has he never entered the free-agent market; until this year, he was never even in sight of the free agent market.

Now it's clear that Ortiz hasn't always been happy with these moves—he was hoping for a new deal before the start of this season, and by all rights deserved one. However, he has (mostly) played during the regular season with his usual grace and goodhumor, and has once more chosen to forego free agency and a last big payday in exchange for another chance for the franchise for which "Big Papi" is as much a mascot as a home run threat.

In an age in which cynicism reigns supreme over everything, it means something when a player like Ortiz shows the same love to the franchise as its fans have shown him. We'll gladly agree to never bring up the calls to DFA Papi during the pre-"eye drop" part of 2009 again, if he promises never to put on a Yankees cap again, even in jest.

And, really, that's what we have to be thankful for: as things stand right now, we don't have to worry about the horrific possibility that, someday soon, we'd have to see a star we've loved and grown older with put on somebody else's batting helmet or stand on the mound wearing another player's jersey. That's something to be thankful for no matter what.

*Special thanks to the fine folks at Pats Pulpit for that gem of an analogy.