ST. LOUIS (AP) — When a 10-foot statue of Albert Pujols was unveiled last month outside his restaurant in suburban St. Louis, hopeful fans took it as a sign he was staying put.
Turns out it wasn’t.
Pujols chose Thursday to sign huge contract with the Anaheim Angels. His decision, though, was less of a stunner than manager Tony La Russa’s surprise announcement right after the Cardinals won the World Series that he was retiring. La Russa, everyone thought, was a baseball lifer.
The possibility of Pujols’ departure had been percolating since the first day of spring training when he cut off contract talks. Plan B has been in place for some time, with Lance Berkman moving to first base and Allen Craig getting a regular outfield spot after he recovers from off-season knee surgery.
Now the Cardinals have millions to spend on upgrades. One fewer statue to erect outside Busch Stadium, too, for a player whose 11 electric seasons in St. Louis had people mentioning his name alongside Hall of Famer Stan Musial.
Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the team’s payroll would probably top last year’s $110 million. The team had been prepared to go well above that number if Pujols had signed.
“I think we’ve got a good club,” DeWitt said. “Obviously, we’d be a lot better with Albert, but we would have committed a lot of resources to Albert and now we can deploy them.”
DeWitt said the Cardinals’ final offer was “in excess of $200 million for 10 years” to keep a player he has referred to as “irreplaceable.” The Angels easily trumped that with a 10-year, $254 million package.
“When I heard that number, I said ‘Wow,’” general manager John Mozeliak said at a news conference in St. Louis. “That’s big. Everybody that was very close to this process knew we were stretching and putting ourselves in a position that was becoming a little uncomfortable, but one that we were trying to do and thought was worth it.”
Ex-teammates did not feel jilted that Pujols chose the Angels. Second baseman Skip Schumaker lives in Mission Viejo, Calif., about a 20-minute drive from Anaheim, and noticed “kind of an interesting buzz” around town.
“I thought they’d hash things out and he’d sign here,” Schumaker said in a telephone interview with the AP. “At the end of the day it’s a business, he got what he wanted, and you have to be happy for Albert.”
Sure, it’ll be strange. The only other uniform Schumaker has seen Pujols wear is an All-Star uniform.
But it’s the business of the game.
“I guess I didn’t really have any expectation, so I guess it’s not really a surprise,” reliever Kyle McClellan said. “It’s definitely going to be a big challenge replacing him. You can’t take away what he’s done here. He’s always going to have that history in St. Louis.”
Predictably, business was down at Pujols 5 where a Westport Plaza security guard kept close eye on the statue. Owner Patrick Hanon said there had been a few dinner cancellations from disgruntled fans.
“We may get a dip but I think it’ll all bounce back,” Hanon said. “We don’t plan on changing anything unless it really goes bad and Albert wants his name off it.
“Right now, we’re hanging tough.”
Aside from shunning the restaurant, fans didn’t seem to harbor much resentment.
Now that he’s gone, it was easier to judge the idea of giving a 10-year contract for any amount to a 31-year-old player, even if he’s arguably the major league’s best.
Katie Coyle of Kirkwood, Mo., wore team colors to work as fitness coordinator at a YMCA throughout the postseason and unlike most, never gave up last season when the Cardinals were 10½ games back in the NL wild-card standings in late August. She’ll miss Pujols, but won’t miss watching him in the latter years of the contract.
Pujols already appears to be on a slight decline. If only by a percentage point and a single RBI, his run of hitting for a .300 average with 30 homers and 100 RBIs ended in 2010 at 10 straight seasons, and he’s been dogged by ailments to the elbow, hamstrings, feet and back.
Down the road, at least the Angels can use him as the DH.
“I know he had that huge game in the World Series when he hit three home runs, but Albert didn’t have nearly as many game-saving, clutch-playing games this year as he’s had in the past,” Coyle said. “I think his body’s going to start breaking down and I think he’s going to regret leaving St. Louis.
“If he’d have stayed here, there would have been compassion and understanding when he’s older, because everybody had seen him at his best.”
Well, there was a little resentment. Teachers aide Roz Dubinsky wants the statue taken down.
“I’m not even a baseball fan but I do have strong feelings about Pujols’ greed and his lack of feelings in ‘deserting’ a city that gave him a lot,” Dubinsky said. “How much money does one need?
Bottom line, just because a person has talent doesn’t mean he has class!”
There are few major needs on a team that won the wild card on the final day of the season and then beat the 102-win Phillies, Central champion Brewers and Rangers for their second World Series championship with Pujols. Shortstop is the biggest concern, and Craig will probably miss the first month of the season.
The rotation is already stronger with Adam Wainwright, a 20-game winner in 2010, set to return. Mozeliak recalled widespread pessimism in February when Wainwright underwent elbow surgery.
“Most people in the media thought we were going to have a very long year,” the GM said. “And fortunately things worked out. Other players stepped up and it ended up being a very successful year.
“Obviously, it’s easy to say this is going to be a difficult hit, but I think really before we pass judgment let’s allow us to play a game,” he added.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.