I'm not sure people realize how possible it is that Albert Pujols won't be a Cardinal in three years. And every day, every loss, every solo Pujols homer, makes it a little more likely to happen.
The great Bernie Miklasz touched on this in his column yesterday, but I think he was soft-pedaling it a little bit, lest your average St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader try to drown him-or-herself in his/her oatmeal. Pujols leaving wouldn't be as damaging as LeBron James leaving Cleveland — we at least have won a couple of World Series over the last 40 years — but it would be close. And it might actually be more likely to happen. It's the most terrifying notion imaginable to any Cardinals fan, and, all told, if you were to ask me to set odds on it, I'd say it's 50-50. And that's probably being optimistic.
Pujols isn't a free agent until after the 2011 season, though that's somewhat misleading: The Cardinals will have to take care of his contract situation long before then. He has a $16 million option for that season, one the Cardinals would obviously pick up. But $16 million is nothing: That's $2 million less than Andruw Jones is making this year. If the Cardinals let it go long enough to the point that they're picking up that option, Pujols is as good as gone already.
Here's how it might go down:
The Cardinals are currently a game out of first in the NL Central, but that's far from some grand accomplishment. Their offense has imploded — the one Cardinals win against Cleveland over the weekend was a 3-1 victory behind two Pujols solo homers and a wild pitch — and Pujols has zero protection in the lineup. Every Cardinals hitter has regressed, from Skip Schumaker to Ryan Ludwick to the injured Troy Glaus to, yes, Rick Ankiel. (This season, Ankiel has transformed into Rob Deer ... except he only has four homers. It's possible he's playing so poorly that he priced himself back in the Cardinals plans next year.) Pujols is walking more, yes, but more to the point, he's straining to make something happen, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and overextending himself in a way that, say, Barry Bonds was just patient and blase enough never to do. When you're constantly batting with no one on base, and you're bored with walking, you start swinging at anything. Only pitchers as sloppy as Tomo Ohka are throwing him strikes.
His frustration is palpable, but that's nothing compared to Tony La Russa, who is in the final year of a two-year contract. La Russa — who has been in St. Louis 13 freaking years now — was the last management piece left standing last season when Cardinals brass embraced the scouting stathead types like VP Jeff Luhnow and general manager John Mozeliak and allowed old GM Walt Jocketty to leave for Cincinnati. In theory, the owners made the right decision: Jocketty mostly ignored the draft (a slight oversimplification, sure) and stocked his triple-A squads with veteran fill-ins like Roger Cedeno, Timo Perez, Brian Daubach and Larry Bigbie, where as Mozeliak and Luhnow use the minors, you know, to develop talent. But so far, none of that talent has turned into Albert Pujols, and La Russa, who was close to Jocketty, is frustrated: He feels like there are no reinforcements coming, and that ownership is being purposely cheap. He might be right. He might not be. All that matters is that he feels that way.
Because no matter what your thoughts on Tony La Russa are — and I love him — nobody's closer to La Russa than Pujols. In Pujols' second season, La Russa said El Hombre was the best baseball player he'd ever managed, and though that seems obvious now, back then it was a shocking statement from a grouchy manager known for openly disdaining young players. Pujols and La Russa both have a lot of Bob Knight in them: They're surly, singularly focused on winning every game, in any possible way, and if you are in the way of that quest, you must be destroyed. Pujols is not one of those Bonds-esque superstars who does his own thing and sits idly by: His passion to win, at any means necessary, rivals La Russa's. The two men were born to work together. If Pujols had come up with any other system, under any other manager, he's not the player he is now, and if Pujols doesn't arrive, La Russa would have been gone seven years ago. At this point, they're nearly the same person.
So if La Russa decides these new front office folks don't have The Right Stuff, that they're not as brutally committed to winning as he is, he will leave. I'm not sure where he'd go next — maybe he'd just co-manage the Tigers with Jim Leyland; awesome idea for a bromantic comedy! — but he would, without question, leave. Every game the Cardinals lose 3-0, every solo homer Pujols hits, every heralded Cardinals prospect that disappoints (the "Faberge Eggs," they're called), brings him a little closer.
And have no doubt: If La Russa leaves, Pujols probably isn't far behind, because the only reason La Russa would leave is the same reason Pujols would leave: This Franchise Does Not Have What It Takes To Win. The Cardinals simply cannot afford to pay what Pujols is worth on the open market, something Pujols is aware of; he's always said as long as the Cardinals remain "committed to winning," he'll stay. But what if, say, the Red Sox, or the Mets, offered him $25 million a season, and La Russa is already gone? What is keeping him in St. Louis? Nothing. He's not money-crazed by nature, but he's also not a moron.
Miklasz encourages the Cardinals to try to extend Pujols now, but that seems unlikely, not from their perspective, but from his. Why would he agree to spend the rest of his All-World career — seriously, I get to watch Ted Williams every time I turn the Cardinals game on — on teams like this one, teams that have no hitters other than him? Even though the Cardinals are considered one of baseball's jewel franchises, St. Louis is not a major metropolis (it has fewer people than Kansas City) and doesn't have a lucrative cable deal. (CLARIFICATION: The St. Louis metro area, of course, has far more people than Kansas City's metro area; the comparison was meant merely to remind that St. Louis is thought of as a larger sports franchise city than it is. But I should have been clearer.) And the city itself is struggling financially; wait, come All-Star time, for all the reports about the empty lot next to Busch Stadium that was supposed to house "local businesses." Not even Anheuser-Busch is owned by St. Louisans anymore. The Cardinals could turn into the Royals, the Reds or the Orioles quicker than you think, once-proud franchises decimated by money worries and a heartbroken fanbase. (You can take a look at their payroll through Cot's Baseball Contracts.) That very well might happen if the Cardinals lose Pujols. It's more possible than anyone realizes.
The Cardinals are counting on cheap young players, and right now, those cheap young players are not hitting. Pujols is going to look to La Russa on this one; if La Russa can be convinced that the Cardinals can surround Pujols with quality hitters, he'll stay, because you only get to manage an Albert Pujols once in your lifetime. And much of that, much of La Russa's decision, is going to come down to the next month-and-a-half of baseball. If the Cardinals continue to not hit, and they don't trade for someone to help Pujols out, La Russa will have his answer, justified or not: They're not serious here, not anymore. And Pujols will follow, as soon as he can. (Again: If this isn't resolved by the time Pujols' option is up before 2011, he's gone.) Only through La Russa do the Cardinals get the hometown discount. And that only happens if they start hitting, immediately. I'd argue that the next month-and-a-half might be one of the most critical timespans in Cardinals history. We're gonna know, real quick.
When I talked to people about all this this weekend, non-Cardinals fans, they looked at me like I was crazy: It was difficult for them to imagine the Cardinals losing their franchise player, their whole identity. But it could happen. It really could.
So when you watch Pujols' moon shots evaporate into the St. Louis night at the All-Star Game next month, bathed in the adulation of 47,000 red-clad corny Cardinals souls, realize that it could all end, that he's not tied to St. Louis forever, that, yes, he could be yours. If you want Albert Pujols to be your first baseman — and, of course, you are a fan of the Red Sox, Mets, Cubs (gasp!) or, if Mark Teixeira dies, the Yankees — you need to start rooting against the Cardinals, right now, this second. We'll know very soon.
Gary Bettman. Dash knows hockey far better than I do, so I'll cede to his knowledge, but I'll say I found his description of how Gary Bettman was received after Game 7 of the NHL Finals kind of sad: "How many times can Gary Bettman walk on the ice-in any and every NHL city-to a chorus of merciless boos before he gets the hint? You're there to oversee the biggest moment of the year for your industry and the only thing everyone can agree on is that you are a villainous bum. What is he hanging on to?" Obviously, Bettman hasn't exactly run the NHL as a well-oiled machine, but the grief we give him and Bud Selig, and the slack we give Roger Goodell and (especially) David Stern, seem a bit out of proportion. The NHL has teams go bankrupt and sell off players, and it's just one more example of how much of an idiot Bettman is; when that happens in the NBA, hey, those franchises are stupid! Major League Baseball is about to pass the NFL in total revenue ... but boy, Bud Selig sure does look like a clueless car salesman, doesn't he? I think it's just because we like to make fun of dweeby-looking people. Which is fine, of course!
Joe Buck. You have to give it to Artie Lange, who singlehandedly turned Joe Buck's show watchable, if only briefly. I'm sure he knew it: I'm sure he was watching Buck's interview with Favre — because hey! It's HBO! It's comedy! It's Favre! — and said, "Jesus Christ, this show is horrible. I need to take it over, or no one will ever talk about it again. Besides, I'm very, very high right now." And that he did. I'm on the record as liking Joe Buck, but man, did Lange ever expose him as out of his element on that show. When Lange nuked the set, Buck was helpless; he didn't have the tool in his arsenal that would have minimized Lange and wrested back control of the show. Sure, Lange was being impossible, but Letterman could have dealt with him, Costas could have dealt with him. Buck was stuck, falling back on pre-readied "hey, see how goofy Paul Rudd and I looked when we were 18!" photos and crawling under his chair. (Spencer Hall has some fun with Buck-as-decorating-accessory.) Look, Buck seems like a genial enough guy, but the problem wasn't Lange, who, after all, is simply being Artie Lange. The problem was Buck. Hosting a variety talk "comedy" show is not something he's particularly skilled at. Lange just exposed it, in the worst, loudest and most immediate way. It's not the worst crime in the world. It happens. As Craggs pointed out this morning, Buck didn't help himself by going to his sports media buddies and apologizing for the whole episode, like it was some terrible ordeal he feels awful that children had to see. (You'd almost call it a "disgusting act.") But you think last night's episode was bad? Wait until the "safer," "friendlier" Episode Two of "Joe Buck Live." That's going to be the talk show equivalent of when, in the wake of Stephen Colbert's blistering mockery of George Bush at the Correspondent's Dinner, the White House asked Rich Little to do it. Episode Two is going to feature Troy Aikman and Billy Crystal playing checkers.
Andrew Friedman. I've always had a soft spot for the Rays ever since, before they suddenly ran to the World Series, they were good sports enough to buy themselves a fan on eBay. The whole organization seems like my type of people, and I can't help but root for them. And something else they're doing right: Annoying Murray Chass! Everyone's favorite Octogenarian (NOT A!) Blogger took the Rays general manager to task for not returning his phone call and, well, Friedman struck back (through PR flak Rick Vaughn), pointing out that Chass called him the day before the draft, when he obviously wouldn't have time to chat. Friedman was kind enough not to point another reason he didn't call Chass back: Because Chass' columns are basically conversations with the wall of his office, a sad old man still writing notes columns every Sunday, like the widower who still fluffs a pillow for his beloved even though she died 25 years ago. Chass, bizarrely, uncorks this gem while explaining his mindset:
How in the world could I expect to get the general manager the day before the draft, Vaughn asked, suggesting that the timing of the column was bad and that I should have waited to write it another time when it would have been more convenient for Friedman to call back.
Now Vaughn was not only acting as the Rays' vice president for communications, but he was also acting as my editor. One of the things I like about writing for this Web site is I don't have editors. I like having no editors. Most of them, I have found, have been useless, if not downright incompetent.
Emphasis mine, obviously. Murray Chass hates editors and thinks they're useless. But no. Murray Chass is not a blogger, not at all.
Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson has always been my favorite NBA coach, and I'm not sure why. Growing up without a team in Central Illinois, I just kind of picked my spots, and I eventually fell in love with that Bulls team that just missed the NBA Finals, the year after Jordan retired. This was Jackson on the top of his game, drawing the best from the most unlikely places — seriously, he could have won an NBA title with Toni Kukoc as the second-best player on the team — and once Jordan came back, I suspect Jackson was happy but lost a little part of who he was. Ever since then, quite reasonably, he has waited to coach supremely talented teams (and/or teams owned by the woman he's having sex with), and you get the sense that mostly, he just wants a place to sit down and rest his back during games. His pseudo-Zen ridiculousness can grate, and he's certainly more fake pop intellectual than real intellectual, but if someone was going to win 10 championships, I'm glad it was him. Surely better than Pat Riley. He'll surely "coach" one more year, then retire and spend the rest of his life on a beach, smoking old weed and having sex with younger women. (I'm assuming they'd have to be on top.) All told, not a bad life.
Michael Lewis. The author has a new book about Dads, and more power to him, Dads rule. (Though his "Today Show" interview about it struck me as strangely awkward. He was on with his wife, former MTV vixen Tabitha Soren, and, well ... I dunno ... I'm not sure those two are in complete agreement about parenthood, marriage, or anything, really. Maybe it's just me.) It will be fascinating to see how the movie version of Lewis' best seller turns out. No, no, not that one, the one with Brad Pitt and Demetri Martin and Steven Soderbergh. I mean the other one, the one coming out later this year. Somehow, everyone's being quiet about the movie version of The Blind Side, which stars Sandra Bullock and Kathy Bates. No, really: The film hits theaters in November. Obviously, football fans will rush out to see it, because nothing says Inspiration Football Movie than Sandra Bullock and Kathy Bates. Do we see Terry Bradshaw's ass in this one?
Shaquille O'Neal. I'm not sure any of us realize how fortunate we are to have Shaq in our lives. I mean, the notion of Shaq congratulating Kobe on his NBA title by Tweeting, "Congratualtions kobe, u deserve it. You played great . Enjoy it my man enjoy it. And I know what yur sayin rt now "Shaq how my ass taste" is on the good side of the force. (It was amusing to watch ESPN quote Shaq's Twitter on Sunday night but ignore the one line that actually has some funny news in it.) Also, make sure to watch Shaq challenge Jose Canseco to a fight and punch a cardboard cutout of Chuck Liddell. Sometimes I think the Internet was invented just for Shaq.
Stephen Sommers. Every summer movie season needs a big-budget full-fledged faceplant of a flop, and this summer is not short on candidates. Land of the Lost and that Eddie Murphy movie are already solid contenders, and the fact that critics aren't even being shown Year One until tomorrow, two days before it opens, is a bad, bad sign. (The NBA Finals commercials didn't help either, clearly.) But it's beginning to look like the worst film of the summer, by far, is going to be that G.I. Joe movie. The trailer looks horrible, the director (the guy who did the Mummy movies) has reportedly been canned and there are rumors that the film received the worst screening test scores in the history of Paramount studios. And those people did Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. We have our true bomb, methinks. It's a shame too, because a G.I. Joe movie had the potential to be so much better than that Transformers junk. I just wish they would have found a way to get the William "Refrigerator" Perry G.I. Joe character in there; he was my favorite.
Peter Venkman. The wait is over: This week, the Ghostbusters video game hits stores, and from all accounts, it's really fun! Basically, you just play as a "new" ghostbuster, joining the team only a month or so after the events of Ghostbusters 2. (Maybe Bobby Brown will show up!) Not only does it have the voices of the original cast — with the exception of Rick Moranis, who "retired" from acting, but including Bill Murray! — but the story was actually written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, which makes it, I dunno, canon or something. I mean, they made a Ghostbusters sequel, and you get to be a ghostbuster. I wasn't planning on leaving my apartment this summer anyway.
Frank Williams. Everybody misses Ralph Wiley; It's worth remembering just how amazing that ESPN Page 2 lineup was back in 2002 (Halberstam, Wiley, a limping but still potent HST, Simmons right when he was learning his fastball). One of my favorite Ralph Wiley columns was about the 2002 NBA Draft, when Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire and Caron Butler were drafted but all he wanted to talk about was old Illini point guard Frank Williams. Of all the Illini woulda coulda stars over the last couple of decades, Frankie was the one who got away, a leisurely, winding Slinkie of a point guard who could find every gap in the lane and somehow twist his way to a bizarre layup. I loved Frank Williams but — and I have Illini sources everywhere! — even back then, he was known as a guy more interested in the gravity bong than the pull-up jumper. Thus, Frank's drug bust last week made me a little sad, but far from shocked. Clearly, because he's a failed basketball player who had "between 30 and 500 grams of marijuana" on him, his life is Out Of Control, or something. That, or, you know, he just had some weed on him. Wait: How much is 30 grams again? God I'm getting old.
Tiger Woods. It's Father's Day this Sunday, which means it's yet another Tiger Woods weekend. The U.S. Open is the signature Father's Day event, and it's the perfect opportunity for old videos of Baby Tiger palling around with his dad, and new photos of Tiger being licked by the family dog. Why hasn't Tiger come out with a book about Father's Day, and his own father, yet? That thing would sell like crazy. (I know just the co-writer.) Anyway, your Father's Day is going to be spend on the couch, watching Tiger win the U.S. Open and talk about how much being a dad has changed his life, and Jim Nantz will happily promote his own Father's Day book, while he's at it. (CORRECTION: The U.S. Open in on NBC. Maybe Nantz will just run onto the 16th green with a copy of his book.) And then you will have another nacho.