Strike One: Albert's Zoning Shift
Life in the Comfort Zone can be an awesome experience. Life out of the Comfort Zone can be harder than it seems, even for Albert Pujols.
It's been fascinating to read and listen to all the analysis of Pujols' Richter scale signing with the Angels over the past day or so. We've heard all about how this move will affect the Angels and how it will affect the Cardinals and how Albert is likely to perform over the back end of the deal.
But how about the front end of the deal?
One thing that has always struck me about Sir Albert is that he's one of those rare humans with absolutely no fear of the moment -- or much else about playing baseball, for that matter. It's a big part of what makes him great.
He isn't intimidated -- not even a little -- by any pitcher, any challenge, any stage. Not even by playing out his contract year, with a quarter of a billion dollars riding on it.
So there's just about no reason to doubt he can take his act to Orange County next season and do what he's always done, be what he's always been -- except for one thing:
He's abandoning the Comfort Zone.
For all 11 years of his career, he's played for one team, in one town, for one manager, in front of one fan base. Very early on in his big league life, it became his show. And he could play it by his rules.
So if he didn't feel like addressing the media some nights, it didn't matter -- not in St. Louis. And if he didn't thunder down the first-base line after every single ground ball he hit, it didn't matter -- not in St. Louis.
He was protected by his manager and by his environment. He was beloved by that red sea in the seats. He was Albert. He was an MVP award waiting to happen every year. He was on a path to becoming one of the greatest first basemen who ever lived. So he could go about it in whatever way worked for him, and that was always going to be cool.
As long as he stayed right where he was.
But just as there was a fortune to be made by leaving all that, there was a price to be paid.
No more life in the Comfort Zone.
His new manager, his new fan base, his new teammates -- they have their own set of expectations, their own way of life, their own history to make and experience. So what they ask of him might be very different at times from what's been asked of him before.
There's no reason to think a player this great, with a will this strong, can't adapt to all of it. But he should know the world will be watching how he handles it. All of it.
"When you leave your comfort zone, where people know you and respect you and are glad you came back, and you go to a place where the expectation level now is the highest it's ever been, it's hard," one National League executive said. "It's hard to go to a new team with a huge contract, no matter who you are. His expectation level now, from the outside raining in on him, will be the highest it's ever been in his career. It's a higher expectation level than trying to get to the big leagues and stay.
"And you know what?" the exec went on. "At the end of the day, everyone's a human being. Everyone's got human motions. Everyone's got the ebb and flow of life. So when you reach a point where you make so much money and the checks are so big every payday, the game gets tougher. People around you will get on your case. If you don't feel right and you don't run down the line hard, or you somehow go 1-for-30, people will get on your case. And it's easy to say, 'The hell with you.' It can happen to anybody."
Which isn't the same thing as saying it will happen to everybody. But to avoid it, Pujols will need to be tough. And he'll need to be aware of the new expectations around him. And he'll need to be great. He'll also need to carve out a whole new Comfort Zone. I have no doubt he can. But that's not the same as saying it will be easy.
"I personally think Albert is going to be fine," the same exec said. "He's a strong, strong personality, and that's what it takes.
"But he will also be tested. So let's see how he meets the test."
Strike Two: Hanley's Health
The future of Hanley Ramirez might not be quite as compelling to the masses as the future of Albert Pujols. But it's intriguing all the same.
Face it. It's this simple: The Marlins' signing of Jose Reyes -- the centerpiece of everything they've done in this offseason -- will work only if the old shortstop in town, Hanley, can play third base.
At the moment, we don't know whether he can. We don't know whether he thinks he can. We're not so sure he even wants to find out whether he can. And that's trouble enough.
But there's one more thing: We don't know whether he's going to be healthy enough this spring to pull this off.
That's possibly the biggest issue, because the only way Ramirez is going to make this transition fly is through hard work, and lots of it. But until his surgically repaired shoulder heals, he can't start putting in that work. And no one with the Marlins has offered any assurance he'll be ready to go at the start of spring training.
I asked the team's president of baseball operations, Larry Beinfest, this week whether he expected Ramirez to be healthy on day one of spring training. The answer Beinfest gave was: "We'd like to think so. We're anticipating him being ready for spring training. Whether that's day one, I don't know."
The "real key," Beinfest said, "is to have him ready for Opening Day." And the Marlins say that prognosis is good. But
I think often of Alex Rodriguez, showing up at dawn every morning in his first spring with the Yankees, trying to learn everything he could possibly learn about how to play third after a lifetime playing short. We're talking about hours and hours of extra work, week after week. And that's from a guy who committed himself, from the start, to becoming the best third baseman he could be.
But we don't know whether Ramirez's heart is ready to make that commitment, just as we don't know whether his shoulder is ready to make all that work possible. So is there a bigger worry for the Marlins over the next few months than that one? C'mon. How can there be?
Strike Three: Useless Info Dept.
• Albert Pujols hit 455 home runs as a Cardinal. Only four players in history hit more career homers before changing teams for the first time -- Hank Aaron (733), Willie Mays (646), Harmon Killebrew (559) and Eddie Mathews (493).
• Jose Reyes won the batting title this year -- and then changed teams himself. According to Elias, he will be just the sixth player in the past half-century to lead his league in hitting and then not play for that team the next year. The other five:
1990 -- Willie McGee (Cardinals/Giants*)
1978 -- Rod Carew (Twins/Angels)
1976 -- Bill Madlock (Cubs/Giants)
1970 -- Rico Carty (Braves/hurt all of 1971)
1962 -- Pete Runnels (Red Sox/Colt-45s)
(* -- McGee actually was traded by the Cardinals to the A's during the 1990 season but still qualified for the NL batting title, then signed with the Giants that winter.)
• C.J. Wilson started Game 1 of the World Series for the Rangers -- and is now an ex-Ranger. Think that's unusual? Think again. It's actually the second straight year this has happened just to the Rangers, the third year in a row it's happened to a Game 1 World Series starter and the eighth time in the past 20 years that a Game 1 World Series starter will have changed teams the next year. The others:
2010 -- Cliff Lee (Rangers/Phillies)
2009 -- Cliff Lee (Phillies/Mariners)
2004 -- Woody Williams (Cardinals/Padres)
2003 -- David Wells (Yankees/Padres)
1998 -- Kevin Brown (Padres/Dodgers)
1997 -- Orel Hershiser (Indians/Giants)
1991 -- Jack Morris (Twins/Blue Jays)
• Mark Buehrle has ripped off 11 consecutive seasons of at least 200 innings and double-figure wins. Only two other pitchers are working on streaks even half that long -- Dan Haren (seven in a row) and Roy Halladay (six).
• Who was the last pitcher before Buehrle to compile a streak that long, all for one team, and then change teams the next year? Don Sutton, who did it for 15 straight seasons (1966-80) with the Dodgers and then signed with the Astros before the 1981 season.
• Finally, how about this incredible note from the Elias Sports Bureau? Not only did Pujols hit 445 homers as a Cardinal, but he had a .328 batting average while doing it. Want to guess the only four other players in history to hit that many home runs and have an average that high for any franchise? They would be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.
The only two guys to do that and then switch teams? Albert and The Babe. Cute couple!
Shameless Book Plug Dept.
If you're a Philadelphian, you've got one more chance before the holidays to attend one of our world-famous Philadelphia Sports Book Signing Extravaganzas. It's coming up Thursday (Dec. 15) at the fabulous Barnes & Noble Willow Grove, at 7 p.m. I'll be signing copies of the new paperback edition of "Worth The Wait" -- and "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History." And I'll be joined by another awesome lineup of noted Philadelphia-based sports authors, including Ray Didinger, Mike Missanelli, Chris Wheeler, Glen Macnow, Jim Miller (of ESPN book fame), Steve Bucci, Todd Zolecki, Reuben Frank and more. Should be a great night for shopping and chit-chat. So please stop by. For more info, click here.