Commentary

The attention Albert Pujols doesn't want

Enigmatic Cardinals slugger reluctantly sits at Series epicenter as free agency looms

Updated: October 25, 2011, 4:28 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Either one or two games remain in the 2011 baseball season, one or both of which will be played in St. Louis, one or both of which will carry the wrenching tensions that have defined this energizing and surprising World Series. And most importantly, for all the thrills and excitement of true October baseball, they will also carry the specter of the unspeakable: the nervous reality that Albert Pujols may have 48 hours or less left in his career as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

As much as Pujols has attempted to deflect attention -- from his stature, from his personality, from his impending free agency -- he is simply too good a baseball player to go unnoticed. He is the undercurrent that roils just under the surface, barely contained. The World Series has provided him with the most appropriate setting at the most appropriate time. He is the game's biggest player playing in its marquee event, and responded with the most prolific individual performance by anyone who's ever stepped into the World Series arena, the numbers topping Mantle, Ruth, Reggie and Musial.

[+] EnlargePujols
Tim Heitman/US PresswireWhile he is arguably the best player in the game, Albert Pujols would rather stay away from the spotlight.

In real time, Pujols' three-home run, 14-total base, six-RBI performance in Game 3 altered the complexion of the series, transforming him from a great player to one so dangerous that he would not easily be given another opportunity to damage the Rangers. In the pivotal Game 5, Rangers manager Ron Washington intentionally walked Pujols three times, allowed him to swing the bat only in his first and last at-bats. Since Saturday night's majestic performance in the Cardinals' 16-7 Game 3 win, Pujols has received the Barry Bonds treatment -- he hits when no one is on base, if that -- and it is unlikely he will see many pitches for the rest of the Series.

He has stood at the center of this Series, the way the great players must. During this postseason, Tigers manager Jim Leyland remarked that the playoffs have been terrific because the great players have been the headliners, and Pujols has stood above the rest. There are stars in the World Series, but Pujols is the only player on the field who is guaranteed entry into the Hall of Fame.

If Texas Rangers starter C.J. Wilson has been auditioning this postseason to prove he is worthy of the No. 1 starter label and the hundreds of millions of dollars that could come along with it when the free-agent period begins this winter, Pujols is indirectly being auditioned in his own way. The executives who run Major League Baseball, as well as the public and the press, are watching the big man on the big stage, wondering if he has the temperament and the desire to be the face of the sport, to be more than a devastating hitter and run producer, but the kind of ambassador the sport currently does not have and -- in a time of falling ratings -- desperately needs.

No player in the free-agent era has ever been where Pujols now stands, so close to another championship, perhaps so close to staying or leaving. There hasn't been a homegrown MVP winner who won a world championship with his original team and left; certainly never one who has won multiple MVPs and a title and then left for free agency. Reggie Jackson won an MVP and three titles with Oakland, but was traded by management. Cal Ripken won an MVP and a title with the Orioles but never changed teams. Derek Jeter has never expressed anything but a desire to play baseball for the New York Yankees, illustrated by last year's free agency. Alex Rodriguez was not a homegrown Yankee but won an MVP and a World Series title with the Yankees and is under contract for six more seasons. Barry Bonds won MVP awards with Pittsburgh, but never a title. Kirby Puckett never won an MVP, but won two titles, tested free agency but remained with the Twins.

The statues that stand in front of Busch Stadium, especially the biggest one -- the one of Stan Musial -- are reserved for the one-millionth percentile, the difference-makers, for players like Pujols. No player in history has accomplished what he has -- and is two wins away from a second title -- and left voluntarily.

Only one thing is clear: Pujols wants to be paid like the great player he is. If Rodriguez's last mega-contract with the Yankees in 2007 isn't exactly his target, then Ryan Howard's five-year, $125 million contract certainly is. There are Cardinals insiders who say Pujols will easily leave the organization if his contract demands are not met. Others believe his departure to be the unthinkable, unprecedented act it would be, and that in the end, the Cardinals will pay him whatever it takes to stay.

Each day for Pujols represents a new milestone. With 445 home runs, a 500th could come in a different uniform, as would a 3,000th hit. But these are different times, financial times, big-money times, free-agent times. They are times when it is perhaps appropriate to recalibrate the old notions.

"There is still the iconic factor. … We are very cognizant of that, very much aware of what being an icon, being an icon in St. Louis means. But like I said before, I think the question is more for the player."

--Cardinals GM John Mozeliak

"Having a player play for 15 or 20 years with [one] organization I think maybe might be considered more special at this point because it is so rare," said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' vice president and general manager. "In the days of free agency, where you see so much turn[over] from rosters, I think it's refreshing where you can have a player be identified with one organization and one that, when you look back to like the Stan Musial or Red Schoendienst era, this is just a different time, and to have something where a player ends up like a Cal Ripken, play somewhere for as long as he did in for one organization, it's an anomaly at this point. I hope we can accomplish another one."

It is here that Pujols stands. After his memorable night, MLB officials blanched at the fact that he seemed to have no interest in the hero game, in allowing his feats to elevate the game as much as it has his team. It makes one even more curious to imagine him in Boston, or New York, or Philadelphia, the megamarkets where the lights never dim. The suits at MLB wanted him to shine, to let the wattage of his performance become theirs, so they could all bathe in it, but Pujols was not biting. He descended into joyless cliché, perhaps still smarting from being criticized for his lack of accountability as a team leader after Game 2 and as a representative of his sport's showcase event.

For all of his greatness, Pujols remains one of the more enigmatic players of his generation, attributable perhaps to playing in the Midwest, away from the crush of the megamarkets of the superpowers. And the next several weeks will reveal much about Albert Pujols -- where he stands in the pantheon and what he wants, what is important to him today as a baseball player and tomorrow for posterity. For all of his comfort and the public's love for him, it is unclear how strongly Pujols identifies with being a St. Louis Cardinal, especially in a time and culture when money -- top money and nothing more -- often equals respect.

With other players, it was easier. It was clear that Bonds, with his bitter arbitration losses, was going to leave Pittsburgh, and equally clear that Ripken, Gwynn and Jeter were going to stay. Mozeliak has danced gingerly around the business of the game that puts his team at a disadvantage to re-sign Pujols -- what percentage of the team's overall payroll one player can account for while keeping the team competitive, how many years it will take to keep Pujols while realizing that for millions of fans, he is their Dean, their Musial, their Brock, their Gibson.

"There is still the iconic factor. I don't want to diminish that when you look at overall value," Mozeliak said. "We are very cognizant of that, very much aware of what being an icon, being an icon in St. Louis means. But like I said before, I think the question is more for the player."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.