Sunday, February 20, 2011

The End of Winter

Don't tell me about the world. Not today. It's springtime and they're knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball. ~Pete Hamill
Pitchers and catchers reported a week ago. The “regulars” rolled in just the other day. In Arizona and Florida, at least, spring has officially started. For those of us restricted to northern terrains, a sunny day and a picture of young men tossing long-ball will suffice. Baseball is as much about imagination as reality, allowing grown men to overcome abandoned dreams and to be transported in time to the simpler days of youth. For baseball fans, spring is when the cool winds of March and the smell of a leather glove awaken in the senses the hope of new beginnings, when every team is a contender. This year is no exception.

Winter in Philadelphia lingers as the last remnants of snow refuse completely to disappear, the sun’s rays meekly penetrating the cold air. Although nature bequeathed us a day or two of softness, a February flirtation with the gentle touches of spring, the winds quickly strengthened in intensity and the temperatures dropped once again, permitting us to escape the harsh chill of winter only in the daily reports of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.

My normal excitement level for the start of spring training and anticipation of a new season has been tempered this year by a reminder of the darker, business side of baseball, talk of money and contracts, revenue and payrolls. I speak particularly of the Albert Pujols contract negotiations, which for Cardinals fans is the source of sleepless nights and intestinal distress. For those of you living on the planet Zortec, let me explain. Pujols is in the last year of an eight-year, $111 million contract. If the Cardinals cannot find a way to sign him to a new deal by the end of this season, he becomes a free agent and the Cardinals, a team of moderate wealth and a payroll that befits its Midwestern television market, will have to compete potentially with every team in the Major Leagues to bid on his services. That means that the Yankees, the Red Sox and, God forbid, even the Cubs, will legitimately be allowed to offer Pujols any amount of money they are willing to dish out to lure him to their team. Some might call that free enterprise. I call it Armageddon.

Being a fan requires certain fortitude and a willingness to endure pain and heartbreak. Only true fans can really understand this. When everyone else says, “Grow up” or “Get a life”, we just shake our heads with the knowledge that the non-fan lacks discernment. A true fan connects to a team the way one connects to immediate family; we are wrapped up in our team’s identity, its players form part of our secret inner circle. I can criticize a player on my team, but if a Phillies fan knocks my second baseman, they just may find extra spices in their cheese steak, if you catch my drift. The star players, of course, are extra special, for they disappoint us less and provide us with the hope of a winning season and the dream of a championship. The longer a star player remains with us, the more we identify with him.

I became a Cardinals fan in the spring of 1967, when I was eight years old. Yes, I know, I am from New Jersey. It is simple really. My second grade class was studying the many different species of birds. Always one to choose favorites, I took an immediate liking to the cardinal, lured by its magnificent, bright red coat and distinctive black trim. There was simply no other bird like it. As it happens, my ornothological studies coincided precisely with when I fell in love with baseball. I had started to play the game with my older brother and his friends and learned that baseball and me were a natural fit. I quickly became consumed by it. When that summer I discovered the St. Louis Cardinals and the “birds on the bat” that adorned their uniforms, I was an immediate fan. Soon I was following my favorite team and my favorite players – Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Mike Shannon, and Tim McCarver – colorful players who lit up a ballpark with their grace and athleticism. The bond permanently cemented in the fall of 1967 when the Cardinals won the World Series; I was forever hooked. (Only years later did I discover that it was somewhat frowned upon to root for anyone other than the home team. I have finally stopped looking surprised when someone asks me, “Are you from St. Louis?” after confiding my team loyalties.)

To this day, I identify the Cardinals of my youth with Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Although the surrounding cast occasionally changed, especially since the advent of free agency, Gibson, like Stan Musial before him, was a Cardinal for life. So was Mike Shannon, who still does the play-by-play more than 40 years later on the Cardinals’ radio network. Brock, who the Cardinals acquired from the Cubs in 1964, remained a Cardinal until he retired in 1979. I can still recite the daily lineup card for the Cardinals teams of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. At the age of eleven, I started playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, an extremely realistic, statistic-based board game, played with dice and individual player cards formulated from the previous season’s statistics. I “managed” eight straight 162-game seasons of Cardinals games, keeping box scores and calculating the season’s at bats and innings pitched, hits, runs, RBIs, walks and strikeouts, batting averages and earned run averages. To this day, I can compute batting averages in my head. I spent more time in study hall writing out that day’s lineup card and studying my team’s statistics than I did doing homework. Hmmm. Perhaps this is why I did not attend an Ivy League college, or why I wince when asked about the works of William Shakespeare. I mean, what was his batting average?

More than four decades hence, you must forgive my indulgence, then, of Albert Pujols. When a player is as uniquely talented and identified with one team as Pujols, it takes a bigger man than me to resist the need for common sense and patience in something as mundane and legalistic as a long-term contract. There is something a little disconcerting about the business of baseball. I am a fan because, for 2 ½ hours each night, baseball reminds me of what life was like when I was twelve, when the most important event was how the Cardinals did against the Mets. I did not know or care about the players’ salaries, or how much money the team made in a given season. I knew nothing of television royalties, ticket sales and merchandise revenues. I paid little attention to union disputes and work stoppages. It was the game and what it represented, devotion to a team and identification with its players, which captured my imagination.

I understand that the Cardinals must protect the future of the franchise. Pujols is 31 years old. He will turn 32 before season’s end, when his present contract expires. According to unsubstantiated reports, Pujols and his agent have asked for a contract in the range of 10 years, $300 million. The Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million over nine years, plus an equity interest in the team for life. Cardinals’ management is naturally reluctant to commit 30% of their payroll for ten years on a player who, in six or seven years, will be in the twilight of his career. The Cardinals would likely agree to pay him $30 million a year for five or six years, but they do not want to be tied into a deal that pays even a player as great as Prince Albert upwards of $30 million a year when he is 39, 40, and 41 years old. Pujols is a great player, and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to be among the best players in baseball for the next several years. But even the great ones do not play at 39 the way they played at 29.

I cannot justify the amount of money we are talking about here. And yet, despite my past moralizing over the inequality of income between the rich and the poor in the United States, when it comes to baseball you can dismiss all talk of economic justice, morality and politics. There is really only one consideration. Do what it takes to win! Pujols is a once-in-a-lifetime player. His first ten years are matched historically only by Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. In ten seasons, Pujols has accumulated 1,900 hits, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs, 1,186 runs, 426 doubles, and 914 walks (compared to only 646 strikeouts). Divide each number by ten and you have pretty close to what he has done each season. He is that consistent. He has a career batting average of .331 and an on-base percentage of .426. He has never batted below .312, has never knocked in less than 103 runs, has never scored less than 99 runs. He has twice won the Gold Glove Award for his superb defensive play at first base. By all accounts, he is a great teammate and clubhouse leader.

The famous actress, Tallulah Bankhead, once said, “There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.” I don’t know about Shakespeare (see above), but Albert Pujols must be added to the list. If the Cardinals do not sign Pujols and make him a Cardinal for life, I dread the amount of therapy that will be needed to restore my sanity. All of Cardinal Nation will be on Prozac. I know that it will take a lot of money to sign El Hombre, and I hope he means it when he says he wants to remain a Cardinal for life. But if somehow it doesn’t work out, if Prince Albert someday betrays Cardinal red, it will induce panic-stricken psychosis in the annals of Cardinalville. He is the franchise. He is the St. Louis Cardinals.

Perhaps it is as simple as what one Cardinal fan recently advised Bill DeWitt, Jr., the Cardinals' owner, in an email to ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning, “He wants it. You have it. Give it to him.” I really do not know what to think about it all. In my moments of dispassion and sanity, I can understand the reluctance to give away the store. Then the fan in me takes over, and I don’t want to hear about contracts and money and long-term revenue projections. For the past six weeks, I have awakened each morning with the hope that the headlines would read, “Cards Sign Pujols for Life.” So I have stopped trying to think about it, and will focus on the game and prepare for another long and beautiful season, when my childlike fascination with baseball and the Cardinals will overtake all the messy details of life.

Ernie Harwell, the longtime announcer for the Detroit Tigers, once said, “Baseball is just a game as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes, it is a sport, a business, and sometimes almost even a religion.” As a rational man with a sense for business and economics, I understand the arguments on both sides of the Pujols contract negotiations. But as a Cardinals fan, I simply cannot comprehend life without Pujols.

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