In an era where money and fame seem to be the strongest motivations for many of the biggest names in sports, it’s encouraging to feel that some just want to be the best professionals they possibly can. St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman Albert Pujols has long been the face of this small group. He has always been more committed to St. Louis than to the size of his paycheck, despite being baseball’s finest talent. Thus, it was painfully shocking to hear that Pujols suspended negotiations for a contract extension because the Cardinals would not meet his salary demands.
If anyone is to become baseball’s first $300 million man, it should be him. Considering the deals that some players have signed this offseason, you could argue that Pujols is entitled to even more. Yet there comes a point when the salary figures discussed make you cringe. The Cardinals have already stretched their wallets to entice him to stay, committing to a seven-year, $120 million deal for outfielder Matt Holliday to give Pujols some protection in the batting order. Is he really about to leave this baseball-crazy town because they have not given him enough?
Growing up playing sports, whether in Little League or gym class, we were all taught that one player in not enough to lead an entire team. Being successful in sports comes from playing together as a collective unit—foregoing individual glory for the good of the whole. Sadly, professional sports do not reflect this; superstars are elevated to divine status and paraded around as marketing machines for the leagues, leading them to become more important than the franchises themselves.
As a result, sporting icons that emerge in smaller markets now often leave their team and city behind to join a franchise in a bigger market for an inflated paycheck while broadening their celebrity appeal. LeBron James’s “decision” last summer to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and take his talents to South Beach with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is the most obvious example.
Like most fans, I’m accustomed to this type of sporting climate, understanding that loyalty and stability are not common priorities among modern athletes. But Pujols seemed to be a breath of fresh air—the exception to this trend. Not only is he the best baseball player on the planet, he is a remarkably generous, thoughtful individual. He shies away from the spotlight in favor of a more fulfilling life of family, charity, and perfecting his craft. When he is not terrorizing National League pitchers, he is running the Pujols Family Foundation, an organization that performs charitable work in his native Dominican Republic by providing assistance and care to children with Down syndrome. Furthermore, he has hardly ever been the subject of controversy in the media. And in an era when talk of performance-enhancing drugs toppled the legitimacy of many of baseball’s greatest players, Pujols has never been linked to any banned substances.
Pujols has always stressed his dedication to the St. Louis community for all they have given him and his family, having said many times that he would like to be a Cardinal for life. Apparently, he has changed his mind. Just like LeBron, another future hall of famer has outgrown his small-market team. I thought Albert Pujols was different—a model for what the modern athlete should strive to be. But next winter, through his own doing, he will have the opportunity to decide between remaining loyal to the fans or banking his record-shattering check.