An ass backwards existence

By Paul Daugherty
Updated: February 13, 2011

CINCINNATI — If the St. Louis Cardinals don’t reach a deal with Albert Pujols in the next few days, he will become a free agent after this season and very likely will leave the Redbirds.

If you think this is cause for celebration around here, think again.

The Cubs could sign him, for one.

But it’s not even that. It’s really not entirely about Pujols. It’s about a sport whose economics don’t allow even a fantastically successful franchise with a fanatically loyal fan base to keep one of the best and best-loved players in its history.

If Stan Musial is Mr. St. Louis, Albert Pujols is Stan The Man’s favorite son.

The Reds just signed Joey Votto for three years. It cost them $38 million. Does anyone believe Votto will be here past then?

Don’t blame Pujols. Don’t suggest that he could defuse the whole situation in St. Louis, simply by settling for less time and/or money than what is being rumored now. The going rate for signing Pujols is at least $25 million north of the 10-year, $275 million deal the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez.

Pujols is simply taking advantage of a ridiculous system. It’s a system that allows the Red Sox to spend $142 million on Carl Crawford and the Washington Nationals to fling $126 million at an above-average outfielder like Jayson Werth.

The system also allowed a right-handed Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher named Ross Ohlendorf to get a raise of nearly $1.6 million in arbitration this week.

Ohlendorf was 1-11 with the Pirates last year. The same economics that could cost St. Louis Albert Pujols are what keep the Reds from being consistently competitive.

The Reds are in a good spot now. Smart scouting, drafting and developing have afforded them a three-year chance at being very competitive.

They’re on top of the wheel now. The wheel turns, though. Only the rich teams stay on top of the wheel.

Pujols has said he will not negotiate with the Cardinals after he reports to camp Feb. 16. He will veto any attempt to trade him. St. Louis has two options. Neither is good.

The Cardinals can sign Pujols to a long-term deal that would likely cripple their ability to field a winning team, given payroll constrictions. Or they can let him walk after this year, and say goodbye to a player more purely a Cardinal than anyone since Musial.

Why should the Cardinals be faced with that situation?

The Yankees aren’t. Derek Jeter will retire a Yankee, because the Yankees can afford him. If Boston had believed Roger Clemens hadn’t slipped, it could have paid him enough to keep him in Boston forever.

Who will ever again be a lifetime Cincinnati Red?

Unless a broken system is repaired to give small-money teams a better financial chance, Barry Larkin is likely the last Hall of Fame quality player who will have spent his whole career in Cincinnati.

Maybe that’s not important to you. Maybe you shrug and say, “Willie Mays didn’t retire a Giant. Clemens became a mercenary and the Red Sox survived.” True and true. But part of loving the games is loving the players who play them.

More specifically, feeling a connection to those players.

Baseball doesn’t allow that, except to its top six or eight clubs. It’s a reason football has passed it in popularity. Hope is universal for NFL fans. Hope is in the checkbook: Everybody has the same balance, at least when it comes to paying players. Maybe Pujols and the Cards will get something done. Maybe he softens the Feb.16 deadline, and comes down in the number of years he wants. Pujols is 31 and has a chronically bad elbow. Even a rich club would have to be silly to pay him $30 million eight or nine years from now.

Of course, in Baseball, lots of money gives a team the right to be silly.

The parity that Baseball likes to tout now is skin deep. The fact that small-money teams make the playoffs doesn’t obscure the bigger fact that they’re constantly re-inventing themselves to do it. It’s like paying the minimum balance on your credit card every month. Sooner or later, the piper comes knocking.

It’s not good for Cincinnati that St. Louis might not be able to keep Albert Pujols. Not good at all.