Commentary

Angels shock the baseball world

L.A. commits more than $330 million to land Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson

Updated: December 9, 2011, 2:36 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- It takes a lot to shock the citizens of Planet Baseball. A lot of dollars. A lot of years. A lot of courage.

But the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have pulled it off. On an unforgettable Thursday morning at baseball's 2011 winter meetings, they stunned their sport and changed their world, all in one dramatic swoop.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAlbert Pujols and the Cardinals celebrated a World Series title less than six weeks ago.

All it took was signing the great Albert Pujols, not to mention the $77.5 million and five years they gave to free-agent starter C.J. Wilson.

All it took was 10 years and more than $250 million, and Sir Albert was a Cardinals icon no more. He's an Angel now. Wait. Check that. He's THE Angel now.

He's the face of a franchise that hadn't even been connected with his name until 24 hours earlier. And that means he hasn't just transformed the Angels. He has left his indelible imprint on his entire sport -- on the team he is leaving behind, on the team he's joining, on the NL Central and the AL West, on landmark baseball contracts past and future.

It all came crashing down on one earth-rattling morning at the winter meetings, as news of Pujols' shocking decision rippled through the Hilton Anatole hotel and all the baseball movers and shakers who were still trying to fathom what just happened.

"If he's going to the American League, I'm a happy camper," said Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

"From my standpoint, it's great," said Mets GM Sandy Alderson. "We've got two wild cards and no Albert Pujols."

"I'll miss seeing him," said Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who once, in a previous life, was the general manager who had brought Pujols to the big leagues in St. Louis. "But I won't miss facing him."

Asked whether life in the American League West had just gotten a little more fun, Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine retorted: "How liberal is your definition of the word 'fun?'

"We just saw him for seven games [in the World Series]," Levine went on. "I think it's safe to say we haven't exactly figured him out yet."

Pujols' contract will go down in history as the biggest to a man who was not named Alex Rodriguez. Amazingly, his deal got done in the same hotel where the Texas Rangers once signed A-Rod for 10 years and 252 million of Tom Hicks' well-intentioned dollars.

Asked Thursday whether there must be something about this hotel that inspired monstrous contracts, Alderson quipped: "There must be a strain of Legionnaires' disease here."

"Maybe 'Anatole' means 'U.S. Mint' in another language," joked another GM who wished to remain nameless.

But for the sport of baseball, this was no joking matter. The Angels are a different franchise now than they were a week ago. They have tied themselves to the face, the bat and the aura of the Best Player in Baseball -- for the next decade, anyway. And we'll never be able to view them quite the same way again, no matter how this turns out.

The immediate reaction of the masses will be to torch this decision -- based solely on the completely sensible premise that it's absurd to believe that a 10-year contract for any player in his early 30s is a good idea.

But that isn't how the Angels view this. For them, this is more than merely a baseball contract. This is a decision based not just on what Pujols is about to do for them on the field. It's also based on what he's about to do for the franchise.

"There's no question that branding comes into play," said Alderson, who worked in the commissioner's office sorting through deals like this in a previous professional incarnation. "There's no question that the television dynamic is probably a factor."

So to think that any other player -- whether it's Prince Fielder today or Bryce Harper in 2017 -- can take this contract and use it to rake in a quarter-billion dollars of his own is missing the point. This isn't just any player. It's Albert Pujols.

"Deals of this length and this magnitude are extremely rare for a reason," one National League executive said. "There's only one Albert Pujols. He's the best player of his generation. When you do any contract, you're always looking for comparables. Well, who's comparable to him? There are only a handful of guys who have ever played who are comparable to Albert Pujols."

And that's what the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were buying here -- not merely a first baseman, not merely a No. 3 hitter, but a legend who alters everything about them.

Deals of this length and this magnitude are extremely rare for a reason. There's only one Albert Pujols. He's the best player of his generation.

-- A National League executive

Was that worth $250 million? We're about to find out.

But the men who made this decision -- owner Arte Moreno, new GM Jerry Dipoto and the brain trust they've assembled to lay out the blueprint for the future, near and far -- have no doubt, express no fear of what they've gotten themselves into.

From the moment Moreno purchased this team in 2003, his mission has been clear. He was going to think big. He was going to shoot high. He was going to rewrite the story of his franchise. And he was going to win. So signing Albert Pujols -- and C.J. Wilson -- fits right into the script Moreno has written for himself and his team.

"This is a real guy," Dipoto said of his owner. "I think that's the best way to put it. He's extraordinarily competitive, and he wants to win. In fact, he told me, 'I don't want to win. I want to win EVERY year.'"

And by "win," you understand, Moreno doesn't mean win only the AL West.

"Oh, Arte will tell you: He wants rings," Dipoto went on. "Obviously, to make the type of long-term commitments we've made since Arte purchased the Angels -- the growth of the franchise, the way the market has expanded throughout Southern California, it's been phenomenal. Just look at where the Angels are today compared to where they were when Arte bought the team."

Heck, forget eight years ago. Just look at where the Angels are today compared to where they were like 15 minutes ago. Was there anybody who saw this coming? Anybody besides them?

Since this offseason began, we've asked at least two dozen people where they thought Pujols was going to sign. Not one of them said the Angels. Ten years? More than a quarter of a billion dollars? The Angels don't do deals that long, that crazy. Right? And Moreno -- as driven as he might have been to climb every mountain -- had never signed off on any contract that shook the earth quite like this one did.

But in this case, the owner got personally involved. He didn't just give Dipoto the thumbs-up to charge into these negotiations at the final hour. The owner charged in, speaking with Pujols himself, to make sure this was the right move with the right player -- and with the right human being.

Meanwhile, he had a general manager who was not buying into the popular notion that Pujols already is in some sort of decline, despite some tangible slippage in his numbers over the past couple of years.

"If we want to call a 'decline' going from superhuman to just great, that's fine," Dipoto said. "I don't think we've seen the last great days of Albert Pujols, obviously, or we wouldn't be sitting here today."

Besides, if Dipoto had any doubts about whether this man could still command any stage in the game, he had his own eyeballs and his very own memory bank to convince him otherwise.

Just two months ago, back when he was an assistant general manager in Arizona, he spent the first week of October scouting the NL Division Series between the Cardinals and the Phillies. He watched Pujols hit a typically dazzling .350/.409/.500 (BA/OBP/SLG) in that series against the Phillies' Cy Young collection. But that wasn't all.

"What struck me was the presence," Dipoto said. "More than anything else, it was the presence. More than the three-homer game, more than the clutch hits, the big RBI. It's what Albert brings to the rest of the team. It's every eye in that stadium being trained on him. And it's the opponents on the other side knowing where he is. He has that game-changing presence."

But when Dipoto sat in those seats at Busch Stadium this October, he also saw something else -- namely, the love affair between a player and his town. So two months later, even as he was trying to sign this man, Dipoto was no more sure than the rest of us whether Pujols was really prepared to leave all that behind.

"You never know," Dipoto said. "These are decisions for players to make. And I can't tell you that when I woke up [Wednesday] morning, it was a very realistic thought, because you didn't want to get your hopes up too high."

What went on in Dallas this week, in the Angels' courtship of their new megastar, went far beyond a swapping of numbers and ideas. To make this kind of commitment, the Angels felt they had to look into the soul of the player they were signing.

"The primary focus of every conversation we had," Dipoto said, "was far less about any other issue than Albert and his family, his ability to meld into a community and become part of a total environment. Those things were very, very important. And that was made terrifically clear."

Obviously, the Angels heard exactly what they wanted to hear, needed to hear. And obviously, Pujols himself was ready to take this step out of his Cardinals comfort zone -- and not only because the price was right.

The eyes of the baseball world will follow him everywhere he goes now, and that can be no fun. He can ask LeBron James all about it. So this also is a life-changing decision for Sir Albert. Remember that. And he'd better be great -- for a really long time. Or he could regret this decision for approximately the next half-century.

The Angels could come to regret it, too, of course. They understand what happens to players as they hit their mid-30s, their late 30s and beyond. They know that when, not if, Pujols declines, the second-guessers will be lining up to remind them about what dopes they were to do this.

But that's how it works in life when you dare to be bold. So where others see a contract that's way too long for a baseball player who's way too old, the Angels see a value that transcends the player and the field he'll spend the next decade playing on.

They see only the rocket ship they rode Thursday into a whole new orbit. So they were determined to enjoy the ride.

Later in the day, after all the news conferences, all the radio shows, all the visits to the TV sets, Dipoto walked peacefully through the lobby of the vast hotel he'd turned into the Angels' biggest stage. Before he reached the elevator, he stopped to say hello to an old friend, former Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine.

"Hey, Jerry," McIlvaine kidded, "are you going to take a flight home? Or are you just going to fly home on your own?"

"You know," said the GM who had just rocked the inhabitants of Planet Baseball, "I think I'll just float on a cloud."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com