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December 8, 2010
Inside The Park
Cardinals' Special Era Reaches a Crossroads
It’s the last day of the season at Wrigley Field and I’m determined to wait out Albert Pujols.
I’ve been assigned to cover the Cardinals for the weekend series, the last three games at the antique ballpark in the 2010 season. Before each game, I spend about three hours hanging around the Cardinals in the visiting team clubhouse at Wrigley—a dank, cramped space that isn’t as big as the locker room at the high school I attended in small-town Iowa. It’s an awkward setup, leaving you hovering around 30-35 big-league personnel with no place to stand. On the flip side, there really is no place for them to hide. If you need to interview someone, this is the place to do it. Only the most resolute can avoid the press in there.
Unfortunately, that is a perfect description of Pujols. After five trips to the clubhouse over three days, I’ve barely caught a glimpse of him. On Saturday, he’s sitting at the table in the middle of the room eating breakfast when I walk in, the first media member to invade the team’s privacy. He finishes his food and disappears. My entrance is his signal to leave. I don’t see him again until the dugout, when he breezes by on his way to the field to stretch. He hasn’t been rude. He hasn’t refused to talk. He just adeptly avoids putting himself in position where I could ask my annoying questions.
Pregame is one thing, but Pujols proves to be just as scarce after the first two games of the series. The only places to hide in that closet of a dressing room are the showers and the trainer’s room, and I assume he hangs out in one or the other. Invisible, ‘till the coast is clear. I can’t really blame him. I don’t like strangers asking me questions either. Pujols had some hits in the first two games of the series, but wasn’t really the story in either contest. The game stories and notebook pieces I put together really didn’t call for his comments, and there was no reason to blow my deadline by holding vigil by Pujols’ locker. It’s disappointing, though. This is the first time I’ve covered the Cardinals. How could I go three days without speaking to Albert Pujols?
The series finale, a Sunday afternoon game, is Fan Appreciation Day at Wrigley Field. It feels like a last game. The air is crisp. It’s autumn. Everyone you encounter is cause for another goodbye. Faces that have become familiar over the months—the guy who checks your credential when you come through the gate, the guy who cracks one-liners as he guards the visiting clubhouse entrance, his more stalwart counterpart on the Cubs side, the cook that puts out the food in the press room, the woman who serves beverages in the press box. You thank them all and wish them a pleasant winter. Before the game, the Cubs run onto the field and throw a few dozen baseballs to their adoring fans.
Upstairs, unbeknownst to us all, Ron Santo is calling his last game. It’s the end of an era in Chicago, but this is about an era in St. Louis, one that is both unique and durable, and one that may be ending pretty soon. We’ll get back to that.
The Cardinals aren’t yet eliminated from the playoff race, but they are on the brink. With eight days to go in the season, they’ve got to win them all and hope the Reds go into the tank. No one believes it can happen, but you have to proceed as if it might. There is a first time for everything, right? Still, Tony La Russa is asked about the possibility of an expanded playoff field before Saturday’s game, which offers a window into his state of mind.
“I haven’t time to think about it too much,” he says. “I’ve been too busy trying to get us into October.”
He pauses and looks down at his desk.
“It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, barring a miracle.”
The Cubs have Jeff Samardzija on the mound, which seems appropriate on a day better suited for football. As is his wont, Samardzija is wild early, walking Skip Schumaker to start the game and allowing a hard base hit to Allen Craig. Two on, none out, Pujols up to the plate. It’s a recipe for disaster. After taking a ball, Pujols uncoils on a Samardzija fastball. The blast rockets over bleachers in left-center field, clears the outer wall, and bounces out onto Waveland Avenue. It’s Pujols’ 42nd and, ultimately, last home run of the season. It turns out to be enough to lead the National League for the second straight season. He also winds up leading the league in runs scored and RBI. He finishes .0003 behind Matt Holliday in batting average, the first time in his career he hasn’t led the Cardinals in that category. Pujols’ WARP1 total of 8.2 is the most of any position player in the league. It’s the second-worst total of his career.
The question about whether or not to wait out Pujols is now moot. His three-run shot was the key blow in the game, though the Cubs eventually rallied from an 8-0 deficit to make the late innings interesting. Deadline or not, I’m determined to stand near Pujols’ locker until he comes out. I conduct my other interviews first, then take my position. It’s getaway day for St. Louis—the bus is waiting outside and a flight awaits at O’Hare. He can’t hide from me forever.
In his own way, La Russa is almost as elusive as Pujols. Most teams have a set time and place in which the manager speaks before a game. Typically, they speak in the dugout when the players go out to stretch. Jim Leyland likes to get it over with, so you better be ready to talk as soon as the clubhouse opens. Ron Gardenhire likes to talk in his office, so he can watch golf while he takes questions. La Russa just sort of mills around like an old, bow-legged bear. There is no set time to speak to him and he has a way of always looking like he’s in the middle of something. You have to just pick a time that looks good, pop in, and hope for the best. The first day, he never talks and I practically have to tackle him on the field before batting practice just to get a couple of injury updates.
La Russa has managed the Cardinals longer than any man before him. He has 429 games on Red Schoendienst and nearly 1,000 on Whitey Herzog, and he darn near has tripled up Billy Southworth and Branch Rickey. Only two managers in big-league history have won more games. With Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Lou Piniella all calling it quits during and after the 2010 season, La Russa now has 1,645 more wins than Leyland, who is second on the active list. If a manager is fortunate enough to win, say, 53 percent of his games, it’d take him over 19 seasons to win 1,645 games. In many respects, La Russa is the last man standing from a great, or at least durable, generation of skippers.
La Russa was already entrenched in St. Louis when Pujols broke into the big leagues, fully formed it seemed, back in 2001. It’s been one of the most productive player-manager partnerships in big-league history. Here’s an unofficial rundown of the most wins by a manager-player combination during the Retrosheet era, which now happily extends back to 1920:
The La Russa-Pujols combination is the only one still going, now that Cox has retired. At 86 wins per season, they could reach the top spot in about five years, but La Russa is 66 years old and Pujols can become a free agent after next season. They’ve already won more regular-season games than any other pairing in the Cardinals’ storied history, except for Lou Brock and Schoendienst, whom they could pass in 2011. They’ve won more than Herzog and Ozzie Smith (705 wins), Marty Marion and Southworth (520), Joe Medwick and Frankie Frisch (501), and Rickey and Rogers Hornsby (426).
This has been a golden era for one of baseball’s flagship teams, but do the fans in St. Louis appreciate it? Pujols’ popularity in the Gateway City is unchallenged, but La Russa has lost supporters with each passing season. Fans don’t like La Russa’s micromanagement of late-inning matchups, his affinity for stopgap veterans, his increasingly cantankerous demeanor. Most of the complaints echo those fans of every team have about their manager, but 15 years is a long time for a skipper to spend in one city.
Last season, the happy La Russa-Pujols marriage showed some signs of strain. On May 21, Pujols was at the plate in the eighth inning against the Angels with Ryan Ludwick on first and two outs. La Russa called for a steal on the first pitch of Pujols’ at-bat and Ludwick was thrown out at second. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Pujols threw a bit of a tantrum in the dugout after the inning and the two exchanged words, culminating with La Russa saying, “I know how to (expletive) manage.” Later in the season, La Russa and Pujols received a lot of negative attention when they attended Glenn Beck’s August rally in Washington, D.C.
In September, Pujols said, “I hope he can continue to be my manager for the rest of my career, but that's not my job, and I don't make those decisions. I think this city should be appreciative of the things he has accomplished in his 15 years as manager in this organization. Hopefully, he'll be here next year and for the rest of my career.”
It’s doubtful that La Russa is going to manage when he’s well into his 70s, so Pujols probably won’t get his wish. Given La Russa’s age, fatigue from the fans, and maybe even Pujols’ contract status, you have to wonder if this marriage is going to break up sooner than later. If the Cardinals miss the postseason again in 2011, will next year be it?
Most of the Cardinals are already dressed and some of them have left the clubhouse. Many of the reporters have already circulated and returned to the press box to punch out their postgame tales. Still, no Pujols. I’m not giving up. A colleague has graciously agreed to type up quotes from the interviews we teamed up on, buying me some time. In return, I offer to pass along some Pujols quotes, if I get some.
While the crowd is thinning, it’s still cramped in the little clubhouse. Because it’s the last day and a getaway day, clubhouse attendants and equipment managers are starting to cart off equipment, further pinching the space to stand. I move over to a little beverage refrigerator near Pujols’ stall and lean on the side of it, growing ever-more puzzled at just where the slugger could be hiding. There are only so many places to go. Suddenly I feel a big hand on my arm, as Mark McGwire, the Cardinals’ hitting coach, maneuvers me out of the way so he can grab a bottle of water.
McGwire nods at me, which I take as an invitation to say, “Can you take a couple of questions about Albert?”
I put extra emphasis on Albert just so he understands I’m not going to ask him questions about something that he’d rather not talk about.
McGwire looks at me with a blank expression on his face. Then he brushes past me, actually bumping me out of the way, brusquely saying over his shoulder, “He’s the best.”
I’m a little stunned. More than a little, in fact. For a millisecond, I even think to myself, “Dude, I’m going to have a Hall of Fame vote in a few years.”
But McGwire is only kidding. He turns and comes back and says, “I’m just messing with you.”
You might have noticed from the chart above that the La Russa-Pujols pairing isn’t even the most prolific of La Russa’s career, though that will change before next season’s All-Star break. McGwire played in 901 winning games with La Russa as his manager, the majority of those coming in Oakland. His last year with the Cardinals’ was Pujols’ first. I ask him if Pujols is the most consistent player he’s ever seen. (Bob Costas I am not.)
“I saw him in his first year and I’ve seen him in his 10th year and I watched him from afar in the years in between,” said McGwire. “He was just born with it. His swing hasn’t changed since I saw him on day one. He’s got the best plate coverage in the game.”
McGwire is returning to the Cardinals in the same capacity next year. Since St. Louis struggled offensively at times, some fans aren’t too happy about that. Pujols told reporters, "I believe that McGwire does not get the credit he deserves as the great batting coach that he is.” It’s a nice vote of confidence for McGwire, but Pujols is probably the pupil with which he had to expend the least amount of time.
“He just keeps pounding every day,” said McGwire. “Every day he comes to the ballpark, wanting to get hits, wanting to win the ballgame. He never gives in to anything.”
The Cardinals are eliminated the day after they leave Chicago. A few weeks later, Pujols was beaten out by Cincinnati’s Joey Votto in the voting for the National League’s MVP award. There are arguments for either player, but no matter how you slice it, the gap between them wasn’t that big. However, there is one indisputable fact: The Reds made the postseason and the Cardinals didn’t. As much as anything, that likely turned the vote in Votto’s favor. For Pujols, it probably wasn’t a big deal. He’s won MVP awards before and he’ll probably win them again. But while the Reds were playing in the playoffs, the Cardinals’ attention turned to an important offseason.
First up was La Russa, who mulled over retirement before deciding to return for a 16th season in St. Louis and his 33rd as a big-league manager. Only Connie Mack has managed more. This is astounding. When La Russa managed his first game for the White Sox on Aug. 3, 1979, Danny Ainge was the opposing starting second baseman. The top song in the country was “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer. There are a lot of ways to try to put it in perspective, but you get the idea. (Neither Larry Bird nor Magic Johnson had debuted in the NBA. Roger Staubach was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. OK, I’ll stop.) He’s been around for a long time.
With La Russa remaining in place, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak then went about setting up next season’s roster knowing that any major forays were unlikely, largely because of Pujols’ uncertain future. It’s a work in progress for Mozeliak, who surprised many by signing aging slugger Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million deal over the weekend. After the Winter Meetings, Mozeliak will turn his attention to Pujols.
“Timing is important,” Mozeliak told reporters at last month’s general managers meeting. “We don't want it to drag out this winter. I wouldn't say it's at a critical juncture right now, but I'd like to think between now and the Christmas holiday we'd start addressing it.”
For his part, Pujols has said all along that he wants to be a Cardinal for life, and it’s really difficult to imagine him playing with another team. Those covering the team seem to feel like if a deal isn’t reached over the next three months, then Pujols is likely headed for free agency. What sort of deal will Pujols demand? One would think he’d be looking for the game’s biggest contract and he deserves it. His MORP projections for the next few years suggest he could justify upward of $40 million per season. He won’t be asking for that, but the Cardinals won’t like the numbers if Pujols hits the open market. It’s a crucial three months in Cardinals history.
There are similarities to the Derek Jeter situation that was just resolved in New York, but the differences are key. Pujols is younger, first of all, and shows no indication of skill erosion. However, there is another thing that sets Pujols apart: certainty.
Albert Pujols owns the Mona Lisa of career statistical records. The numbers he put up at 30 aren’t significantly different than the ones he put up at 21. And every season in between has been more of the same. Every single one. The only real change in Pujols’ game since his early years in the majors is that the opposition pitches to him less often, seemingly more so with each passing season. Yet he still manages to produce more runs and wins than any other player in baseball.
Part of the package that Jeter offered the Yankees was the allure of having him reach and surpass 3,000 hits in a few years. Imagine the milestones that Pujols could reach as a Cardinal a decade from now. Going by Pujols’ 10-year PECOTA projections, he’ll reach 3,000 hits in 2018. He’ll get to 600 homers in 2017. But that’s given a realistic projection for a decline in availability. Players get old, hurt, and are rested more often. Those projections suggest that Pujols will play in 65 percent of possible games over the next decade.
If you raise that level to even 75 percent, the numbers become even more Ruthian. Or Cobb-esque. Or a combination of the two, which is probably more like Hank Aaron. At 75 percent, Pujols would be looking at more than 3,300 hits a decade from now, and over 700 homers. He’d be closing in on Aaron’s career RBI mark. At 90 percent (or 146 games per season), if Pujols’ rate stats meet projected marks, he’ll be considered the consensus best player of all-time 10 years from now.
That’s who the Cardinals will be negotiating with, and how they determine the value of Pujols’ singular career path will determine how a significant chapter in baseball’s long history is going to be written. One person who seems to recognize this is McGwire, a person with a couple of historical footnotes in his own ledger.
“If you (have his work ethic) and you have the talent that he has, the determination to be the best, god knows what’s going to happen for him in the next 10 years,” McGwire told me. “I’ve said many times, I hope people understand what’s happening before their eyes as far as what this guy has been. I don’t know if the people are taking for granted how good he is, but they’re not really accepting that, ‘Wow, he’s the best ever, in the history of the game.’ He’s just unbelievable.”
When I left Wrigley Field that day, it was with a notable feeling of melancholy. The ivy was already turning brown in spots. The sun was going down and was shining through the west side of the ballpark. Stadium workers were sweeping the trash from the aisles so that the power washers could be deployed. Fork trucks were buzzing around, carting off the leftover hot dog buns. The ‘L’ was flying on the flagpole in center field for the final time ‘till the spring.
I was mostly thinking about La Russa as I exited the ballpark. I wondered what it must have been like to cover John McGraw in his latter days, a man who traversed eras. I thought about Pujols and how long the two have been together, wondering if it was historically unique. (Resulting in the research reflected in my initial chart.) At any given time, there are only a handful of players or managers that achieve icon status, and to have them paired together for more than a decade is special.
I don’t know whether Pujols is going to sign a $200 million extension or whether La Russa will manage beyond next season. It could be their last season together. They could be together for another half-decade. Hopefully, baseball fans—not just the ones in St. Louis—appreciate that which may be drawing to a close.
Pujols finally did return to his locker that last day at Wrigley. He was dressed and fully groomed—the clothes in his stall must have been a decoy. When I stepped forward to speak to him, he turned and the straggling reporters moved in for the kill. I had about two minutes and there were about 100 questions I wanted to ask, but decorum insists that you stick to the matters at hand. Pujols’ homer was his 47th career long ball against the Cubs, more than he’s hit against any other opponent. I wondered if he had a particular affinity for hitting at Wrigley Field.
“Just another park, man,” Pujols said. “It’s part of the game. It doesn’t matter which park you’re in, you still have to go out there and execute. This is not the only park in the league that I’ve had success in.”
Another reporter wondered why the Cubs were pitching him away. Pujols said that they weren’t.
“They were aggressive,” he said. “I was aggressive too.”
Maybe it’s all that simple to him. Work hard. Be aggressive. Maybe it’s that simple for all the great ones, leaving the rest of us to marvel over the results.