Remember that and repeat it to yourself as the pain and bruising of this shocking hit by Albert Pujols slowly wears off. Explain to your children that even their most cherished heroes are human, tempted by pride and enticed by riches. Use this moment to teach them – and ourselves – that a baseball team is bigger than any one man, no matter how spectacular that man might seem.
Bill DeWitt and John Mozeliak, in my mind, are the real Cardinal heroes. They looked at the numbers, examined the facts, and determined Pujols’ worth going forward in relation to what the team could afford. They do not have lucrative television money to toss around like many other teams (why they don’t is another question). They operate under the safety of fiscal responsibility, a Midwestern sense of financial caution. And, ultimately, they determined that they weren’t going to go beyond a certain point. In other words, they prevented the team from being hamstrung by the weight of one huge contract for a very long time.
DeWitt and Mozeliak understand something many fans are forgetting right now – a winning team requires 25 quality men to be successful. This has always been the Cardinal way – no winning Cardinal team consisted of two or three highly-paid stars surrounded by junk. Instead, the best Cardinal teams were consistent talents, rejuvenated veterans, and impressive rookies.
Look at winning teams of the past – who carried those teams to victory? The 1985 team had a couple of stars in Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark, but they won because of rookies like Vince Coleman and Todd Worrell, budding talents like Willie McGee, and rejuvenated veterans like John Tudor. How did the 2011 miracle happen? It didn’t occur due to big names like Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, or Pujols, but rather because the kids in the bullpen saved the rotation and youngsters like David Freese and Allen Craig unleashed their potential.
Think about it this way: Pujols appeared in 15 postseason series while a Cardinal, and earned exactly ONE MVP award (the 2004 NLCS) in all of them. In other words, one award less than lowly David Freese in three postseason appearances.
Sure, it hurts to see Pujols go. Cardinal fans are sentimental and nostalgic in a way that most other fan bases are not. Cardinal Nation believed, based on Pujols’ own words, that he would be a Cardinal for life. We believed because we still believe in heroes who stand by their words, forgoing their own safety and concerns for the welfare of those they claim to love.
But Pujols’ actions show that he only really loves himself. The relentless pursuit of goals, the calculated pursuit of glory and, eventually, the hunger for vindication by means of wealth, all point to a man driven to be the best for himself, not a team. Sure, he loves for the team to win, but only just as long as it means another line on his Cooperstown resume.
A real Cardinal hero would never declare, as Pujols did during the World Series, that he “deserves special treatment.” A real Cardinal hero wouldn’t ignore a talented rookie like Colby Rasmus for over a year because his manager didn’t like him. A real Cardinal hero wouldn’t keep the team he supposedly loves at arm’s length while trying to extract the top dollar from them or a rival.
No, a real Cardinal hero understands that they are part of a tapestry of excellence, and their contribution to that tradition is indelible and everlasting. That doesn’t mean that a Cardinal player shouldn’t be compensated properly or give up their own rights. But it does mean that a Cardinal player must consider their place on this team, their responsibility to their teammates, and their legacy among others.
And real Cardinal fans understand that their beloved team is more than any one player, regardless of their ability or fame. By his actions, Pujols revealed that his true motive was the ego-driven pursuit of validation in the form of a record-setting contract. Therefore, he shows that, regardless of what he accomplished here, he is no longer a Cardinal hero. He is his own hero now.
For Cardinal fans, a new day has dawned. Spring training will come, and eager new players will step into the hole left by Pujols’ departure. There will be disappointment and elation, triumphs and crushing defeats. New heroes will rise to the occasion, capturing the love and adoration spurned today for ego-stroking contracts.
The Cardinals have an opening for a new hero today. And when he arrives, true Cardinal fans will be ready to believe once again.