Nothing has drawn me out of hiding to post here in over a year, including even the 2011 World Series, which was the most enjoyable sports moment of my life. But today I feel the need to write something down. My one post for 2011:
I feel an ache in my gut today. I know that I shouldn’t. I know it’s silly, but there it is, gnawing at me.
For some reason, I keep recalling the scene in the classic football film “North Dallas Forty,” where a player at the end of his rope rails at the team’s duplicitous head coach. “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game."
Professional sports are a business. But they’re dressed up to look like a game. As a result, to paraphrase the late Bart Giamiatti, they’re designed to break your heart.
We fans allow ourselves to harbor the illusion that they’re not a business. We imagine a connection between us and our team. We allow ourselves the conceit that the players are out there on our behalf, fighting for us, championing our city. Deep down, we know that it’s not really true. Every year brings us more evidence that it’s not. But still we think maybe…possibly…once in a blue moon…we might find one who shows us there is something more important, more lasting. We get sentimental over a business. And as the Corleone family taught us, you can never get sentimental over business.
I wanted to think that somehow Albert Pujols and the Cardinals were exceptions to that inviolable rule. This situation seemed different; special. Albert Pujols was not just some carpetbagger. He wasn’t some guy who lived in a hotel and wore the uniform. He and his family lived in St. Louis, had taken to the city, had become woven into its DNA. They operated a charity there, did good deeds for the city, and said all the right things to sooth the Gateway City’s perpetual inferiority complex. Here was an athlete that was destined to be one of the greatest players of all time--and he understood and loved St. Louis and the history of the Cardinals. Surely, someone like that wouldn’t leave. Surely the Cardinals wouldn’t allow someone like that to leave.
But this morning it happened. The Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim swooped in with a ten-year, $255 million offer, and the Cardinals opted not to match it. Just like that, the soul of a city, the heart of a team that had just won the World Series, the marriage between one of the game’s greatest teams and one of its greatest players, were torn apart.
What stings for me is not the fact that Albert’s bat will no longer be in the Cardinals’ lineup. His ability will be difficult to replace—but not impossible. He’ll be 32 years old next month and his production has already started the steady decline you expect to see at that age.
What stings is that the history this city, this team, and this player were going to share is now lost forever. The sentimental future that was supposed to unfold will now never be. We were supposed to see El Hombre wearing those birds on the bat when he hit home run number 500, home run number 600, hit number 3000. There was supposed to be an Albert Pujols statue out in front of Busch Stadium, next to the one of Stan Musial--the other greatest Cardinal of all time. My son was supposed to stand at that statue and tell his son that he grew up watching Albert Pujols play baseball, just as my dad and grandpa stood there and told me about Stan the Man. A retired Albert was supposed to stand next to a Hall of Fame plaque depicting him in the familiar STL cap. Fifteen years from now he was supposed to stand out there on the field before World Series games wearing his red jacket alongside Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith, the living face of the National League’s greatest franchise.
And now none of that is going to happen.
What has already been accomplished remains. Albert Pujols put up the best 11 seasons of anyone playing in my lifetime, and he did it in a Cardinal uniform. He powered the team to three pennants and two World Series championships, the last of which was the greatest sports experience of my life. He provided me and my son with some of the greatest sports memories we will ever have. I don’t have any anger toward Albert, or toward the Cardinals, for that matter. I wish Albert well, and I know the Cardinals will be fine.
But this could’ve been something different. Something historic. Something that defines a person, a team, and a city. You can’t get that back. It’s gone with the stroke of a pen. What remains is merely the business of baseball. The ordinary. Business as usual. The memory of a few moments of shared success before each side moved on to the next opportunity.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel heartbroken today. That’s what happens when you get sentimental about a business.