Derek Johnson Muses

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Pujols Leaving the Cardinals: Why they Should Thank Tom Hicks

Full disclosure: I’m not a Cardinals fan, or even an avid baseball, although I do end up watching a lot of baseball because it’s on why I’m traveling in the summer. I appreciate the Cardinals as a sports organization. Like the team I root for, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Cardinals are a smart organization, with smart, knowledgeable fans who are quite level headed. That’s why I was very intrigued by their response to Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals for the Angels: measured, reserved frustration, with a grasp of that this was probably what was best for the organization as a whole.

St. Louis Cardinals, thank Tom Hicks and the Minnesota Twins for setting you up to let Pujols go.

It wasn’t by design. But when Tom Hicks broke the bank to bring Alex Rodriguez to the Texas Rangers, he showed that spending the farm on a star brought you interest in the short term, but now success in the long term. Similarly, the Minnesota Twins were pressured into handing hometown hero Joe Mauer a huge contract and will be handicapped for the next sixth year. The Cardinals, while not a poor franchise, are in a smaller market, and St. Louis as a community is frugal. Pujols’ contract would have been a $20-million-per-year-payment for the next 10 years, assuming perfect health. Quite the gamble.

But in the minds of Cardinal fans, that might not have been enough. Pujol’s wife said in a radio interview that the Cardinals’ initially offered her husband a five year deal, about half of what he said he wanted and what he ended up signing for. Should the Cardinals have been embarrassed by such low-balling? Again, no, they were not going to offer an aging player too many years. The Yankees, who have an embarrassment of riches, took the same tact with Derek Jeter last winter, and eventually, Jeter had to come back to them.

Really Cardinal fans, your management gets it: you don’t win by over paying superstars. You win by finding good players and locking them up when they’re twenty-four, like the Cardinals did with Pujols initially. The Yankees spent lavishly on C.C. Sabitha and Mark Texeira three winters ago, and have a mere World Series to show for it. Their competing brethern, the Red Sox, poured money into Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, and their clubhouse was dysfunctional by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers have had a huge couple of years, mainly because they had a bunch of players who came through the system together and peaked at the right time. In a sport with guaranteed contracts, an organization is better off paying stars until they reach their early thirties, and then letting them go.

The Cardinals’ letting Pujols go also symbolizes the Midwestern frugality that helped the region weather the economic crisis better than the coasts. Buy a three-or-four year-old car instead of a new one, buy some of your clothes from a thrift store or dollar general, and eating out less. When you see Wall Street taking a beating, you don’t blame anyone, even your sports teams, for doing with less.

While it stings to loose Pujols now, remember Cardinals fans, how the deal looks now isn’t as important as to how it will look seven to ten years from now. If seven years from, Pujols is averaging twenty games on the DL a year and nothing more than a DH, all of you will say that the Cardinals did the right thing. And if a great young first baseman breaks into your lineup in the next few years, all the more power to the organization.

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