Discover more from The Sports Column
UNCANCELLABLE: PUJOLS DESERVES LAST SHOT WITH NEEDY DODGERS
Often cold and heartless, Major League Baseball must protect future Hall of Famers from late-career legacy damage — and a new opportunity with the World Series champions gives life to an aging slugger
The bailout is shockingly proper, almost enough to restore our faith in the use-up, spit-out nature of a heartless industry. Albert Pujols has been rescued from cancel culture — and not just by any team, but the Los Angeles Dodgers, who offer him a chance not only to play in October but also flip a 31-mile-long middle finger at the team that cut him.
Some deals are inarguably raw in sports. Designating a first-ballot Hall of Famer for assignment, as if blaming him for a $240 million contract that led to zero playoff victories, was wrong of the Los Angeles Angels of Oblivion, or wherever they play these days. Though he sometimes looked every day of his 41 years, moved slower than Orange County traffic, swung like me at the local batting cage and wasn’t close to hitting his weight (a 245-pound slugger with a .198 average), Pujols deserved more deference and a better fate. He gets his shot just up the I-5 freeway, where Dodger Blue has become Dodger Boo-Boo amid a bombardment of injuries, including the broken bone in Corey Seager’s right hand.
Baseball owes parachute landings to its all-time legends as a way of protecting their legacies … and also to avoid looking like a cold, impersonal monolith. You expected Pujols’ loyal friend, Pedro Martinez, to describe his release as ‘‘shameful.’’ You expected David Ortiz, his boyhood chum from the Dominican Republic, to protest on an Instagram post: ‘‘I do not agree on the move that just happened. That was devastating for fans and player(s). I know this is a business, but I was expecting someone like you to walk away like you deserve. You have done so much for baseball that is hard to replace someone like you." But the injustice was driven home by the normally apolitical Mike Trout, the sport’s greatest active player, who was jolted by the abrupt cruelty and said he STILL was learning lessons from Pujols every day.
‘‘We were all surprised when it happened,” Trout said. ‘‘You know, it hit me a little bit. It hit me a lot. Ever since I’ve been up here, he’s been my guy. He mentored me throughout my career so far. Everything you can accomplish, on a baseball field, he’s done. I can go up to him and talk about anything. If I was struggling at the plate, he knows the perfect time to come up and throw something out. He has that feel. I can’t thank him enough. He was an unbelievable person and friend to me.”
What Pujols deserved was one final chance away from Anaheim. It’s a dead-end destination, where owner Arte Moreno can’t figure out how to maximize Trout, two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani and charismatic manager Joe Maddon — but did employ a public-relations director accused of supplying opioids that killed the late Angels pitcher, Tyler Skaggs. The explanation, from first-year general manager Perry Minasian, was that Ohtani is the designated hitter on days he isn’t pitching while emerging Jared Walsh is the regular first baseman, leaving Pujols without playing time. ‘‘He wants to play every day at first base,’’ team president John Carpino said. Shouldn’t all of this have been addressed in the offseason, when Pujols refused to declare 2021 as his final season even with his 10-year contract expiring? Why the communication lapse? Where was Moreno, who signed off on the onerous contract way back when? Since Pujols’ release, the Angels typically have sunk in the standings. And now, they’ll have to pay the rest of his $30 million salary.
This while the injury-plagued Dodgers, the show-biz franchise that long has reduced the Angels to a middling operation, pay him a prorated $420,000. That’s it. We know where this narrative is going, right? The Dodgers, who’ve melded tradition with resources and technology to build the model U.S. sports organization, want to prove they can revive Pujols when the Angels could not and others rejected the challenge. Struggling themselves in a World Series hangover that includes a growing list of health and inefficiency setbacks, the champs will plant Pujols into the clubhouse as a mentor. If Trout was learning from him, what about Cody Bellinger, Gavin Lux, even Mookie Betts? Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner are the longstanding leaders, with Dave Roberts as the seen-it-all manager, but sometimes a fresh, grandmaster voice is needed to sidle up to Trevor Bauer and say, ‘‘Bro, was that tweet really necessary?’’
He won’t morph into Pujols Prime, the three-time National League MVP who ranks fifth in career home runs (667) and 13th in hits (3,253). Hell, when asked if he could beat Pujols in a foot race, Roberts said, ‘‘As a player that I respect greatly, can I beat him in a foot race? I would say yes.’’ The last three years, his slash line was abysmal, and his Wins Above Replacement was a cumulative negative-0.1. As his body and everyday skills broke down in his 30s, he was half the player in Anaheim that he was in St. Louis, where his offensive totals — .331/.426/.624 with 408 homers and 1,230 RBIs — were comparable to the most prolific decade of any slugger ever. But the changes in scenery and culture inevitably will trigger contributing sparks. Because, as Chase Utley and David Freese and other veterans have shown in their twilight, one final act in Chavez Ravine can be rejuvenating.
What’s crazy is, Pujols is amenable to not being an everyday first baseman at Dodger Stadium. In trading up for a premier franchise, he’s dialing down his expectations and demands. In talks last week, he was challenged by Dodgers baseball boss Andrew Friedman that he’d better produce to stay on the roster all season. Pujols took it as a threat, as he should have, because he cannot be a liability for a franchise bidding for a dynasty.
There’s no DH most days. Where does he play? On a roster dependent on versatility, maybe he’s occasionally at first base when Max Muncy slides to second, with Lux as the new shortstop while Seager misses at least a month. Maybe he’s an imposing pinch-hitter in a lineup that needs a right-handed bat, igniting crowds in later innings. Maybe weeks pass without a contribution before he hits a game-winning homer. Whatever, the Dodgers needed bodies and glue. Albert Pujols, walking through that door, certainly has everyone’s attention. That includes the national media, who have a compelling story line in what has been a snoozer of a season, with too many strikeouts, hitless lull periods, major injuries and ongoing COVID-19 cases even when players and coaches are fully vaccinated (see: nine members of the New York Yankees).
In the end, the Angels did him an unintended favor at an exorbitant price. Said Maddon, who denies a report that Pujols yelled at him and insulted his managing skills the day he was cut: ‘‘I would imagine being close to home would have some benefit there. I do wish him well. His family is right there, so it makes sense. If you get that opportunity closer to home, take it.’’ And the Dodgers have nothing to lose beyond $420,000, or what they make in Dodger Dog sales in a homestand. There will be doubters, but only weeks ago, I read a columnist reflect on the demise of Pujols and San Francisco’s Buster Posey, who signed a nine-year, $167 million deal in 2013. This year, Posey is hitting .382 with eight homers and a 1.151 OPS. So there is hope for Pujols, who didn’t entirely lose his batting stroke at the gates of Disneyland.
The game’s oldest active player has new life, which is no small development as Major League Baseball braces for another labor fight and the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement. The Pujols contract is exactly the kind of long-term, diminishing-returns commitment that owners want to avoid. As the New York Post’s Joel Sherman researched, of the 23 players who’ve received mega-deals of at least $200 million, seven have been traded, two have been released and two (Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano) have served one-season suspensions for PED use. It’s the most expensive roulette game in sports.
But what’s a serious team to do — not pay Trout his $426.5 million in fear of his age-39 season? Or not pay Betts his $365 million extension in fear of his age-40 season? If you’re the New York Mets and haven’t won a World Series since 1986, you close your eyes and give Francisco Lindor his $341 million. If you’re the Yankees and haven’t won since 2009, you give Gerrit Cole his $324 million and hope he turns out like Max Scherzer, more than worth Washington’s $210 million pact that expires this season. San Diego ownership angered its old-lord brethren by giving Fernando Tatis Jr., at 22, a 14-year deal for $330 million. The Padres were telling their fans, in a city with no other pro sports team, that they’re committed to contending for the long term. Is that wrong? Isn’t the objective still to win a championship?
If you want the optimum chance to stage a World Series parade, you invest in superstars when you have the opportunity. If you want to play the limited-payroll underdog role — and occasionally get lucky, like the Tampa Bay Rays last autumn — you paint yourself as a small-revenue underdog and hope fans keep caring. It’s a system of haves and have-nots attached to a ticking bomb: the growing likelihood of a labor impasse before next season.
Short of the owners implementing a salary cap, which would lead to a strike that could cripple the game permanently, franchises must continue to gamble that elite players produce big numbers through most of a contract. How does it work out when teams opt not to take the plunge? The St. Louis Cardinals, who let the Angels outbid them in 2011 amid civic rebellion, haven’t won a World Series without Pujols after winning two with him. Tell New Englanders, even with the Red Sox off to a surprisingly hot start, that life without Betts won’t be a nightmare this decade.
Remember, the MLB financial system is a massive pie filled with the fruits of broadcast revenues. Every last crumb of the pie will be devoured; it’s a matter of which owners and players snatch the largest pieces. Moreno could afford Pujols at the time. He obviously didn’t go broke since then, having committed almost double the amount to Trout. The Angels gambled … and lost.
And now, as if karma is biting back, they face double-jeopardy. With Trout apparently headed for another playoff-less season in an ongoing baseball tragedy, Pujols could become a story in the fall … and might even retire as a champion. The lesson, in sports and business: Somehow, though the route might be circuitous, make your way to the best-performing and most-well-run organizations, the ones that know how to create happier endings for even a broken-down old man.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.