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ACKERMAN: The Pujols I Knew

Tom Ackerman
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – I can still remember the first thing that crossed my mind as I was driving home the day Albert Pujols signed with the Angels. My reporting of the story complete, I left the station and prepared for my most important job: Dad.

How was I going to explain this to Albert’s biggest fan?

My daughter, Erika, five years old at the time, was attached to No. 5. When Pujols batted on TV, she dropped her toys and watched. When we attended games at Busch Stadium, Erika followed his every move. She had a picture of Pujols on her dresser, to “protect” her at night. When I traveled to Jupiter, Erika made sure Pujols would be down there. That made my time away a lot easier for her, she said, knowing I’d be talking to Albert.

Yes, it was deep.

So when I drove home on December 8, 2011, I thought about how I would break the news about Pujols to Erika. After picking her up at school, I sat her down for a little chat.

“Erika,” I said, “there’s something I want to tell you that you might hear at school tomorrow, so I thought we could talk about it now. Albert Pujols decided today that’s he’s…going to play for another team.”

Erika looked up. “Which team?” she asked.

“The Angels,” I replied.

“So he’s not going to be on the Cardinals anymore?”

“No,” I said. “He isn’t.”

Without hesitation, Erika responded: “Dad, remember. Love everybody.”

Leave it to a five-year-old to teach her father a lesson.

Even in this current baseball business climate, with massive big-market television contracts and escalating salaries, I still believed Pujols would reach an agreement that would make him a Cardinal for life. As we know now, the Angels contract — 10 years, $240 million — was a figure the Cardinals would not reach, although they came close. And as it turned out, it was a smart financial outcome for the Cardinals that Pujols didn’t take their offer.

But there was much more than money at stake here. Did Pujols bolt for SoCal for a few million bucks more per year? Or was this a matter of pride, a heat-of-the-moment emotional decision? I believe it was mostly the latter. Pujols put together one of the greatest runs in baseball history and the Cardinals didn’t appear to be going out of their way to re-sign him. That hurt.

In business, however, you have to take emotion out of these transactions. And so, what’s done is done. Pujols is DH’ing in the American League (and playing first base when he’s feeling good). The Angels are looking at another possible playoff miss. And the Cardinals are building baseball’s model franchise.

Does Pujols regret the decision to leave? He’ll never say that. His family, continuing to take up residence in St. Louis, clearly loves it here. If Pujols and the Angels finally find a way to put it together, perhaps they can have it both ways: a winning team and the comfort of home.

I do chuckle when Pujols gets dismissive with the media in LA. We saw it plenty here, Pujols’ frustration with the same questions being asked, people beginning to question his ability during a cold stretch. It always seemed to make Pujols angry, which figured to make to him an even better competitor. Sometimes, I thought he did it on purpose just to further motivate himself.

For all of his success on and off the field, there were a few things that followed him around I thought I’d address here:

1) “Pujols could be a little closed off in the clubhouse.” False. Not from my observations. Covering him as a minor league prospect — and during his rookie season — I witnessed numerous interactions between Pujols and veteran players, with Pujols soaking up the knowledge. And Pujols passed that on to many of his younger teammates through the years. See Yadier Molina as someone who carries on that example. I have to think that the Angels, in the long run, benefit from this.

2) “Pujols disliked the media.” False again. Granted, he wasn’t the best at navigating the negative questions that came his way, often shutting himself off or acting defiantly. But I found mutual trust and respect with Pujols in our reporter-athlete relationship. He never avoided any of my direct questions about his contract situation, for example. Never. He always came through when we arranged a one-on-one interview. And I’ll never forget my San Diego experience in 2005, when my flight was delayed coming in for a playoff workout. Upon arriving at Petco Park two hours late and finding an empty clubhouse, I was in danger of having no guests for that night’s special on KMOX. Pujols was the last player to leave the park, caught me on his way out and offered to do an interview. Playoff special saved. Classy.

3) “Pujols turned his back on St. Louis.” False. Pujols might have had his ego damaged by the contract negotiation process, but in the face of criticism (and some of it very harsh) he stayed true to his mission of helping the community through his foundation. That has not stopped; in fact, it’s made a strong comeback. He’s still involved in the annual golf tournament in St. Louis each summer. At Pujols’ “O Night Divine” foundation benefit last December, he greeted me with one of his famous hugs and was excited to share that he and Deidre were going to continue to live in St. Louis. And by now, we all know about his love for Stan Musial and his closeness with the family. In short, don’t equate Pujols’ divorce from the Cardinals with a distaste for St. Louis sports tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is why I believe, someday, Pujols will wear one of the red jackets as a Cardinals Hall of Famer. The Baseball Hall of Fame makes the call on what cap that player will wear on his plaque, while considering input from the player. By the time his year of eligibility rolls around, I don’t think it will be an issue for Pujols. Yes, he has a personal services contract with the Angels that is set to kick in upon his retirement, but things can change. There’s a long way to go. And unless he goes on to win multiple championships in an Angels uniform, even if he achieves career milestones in Anaheim he will always be remembered as a Cardinal.

But for now, he’s an Angel.

“We can still root for him, right?” Erika asked me.

“Sure we can,” I said.

“Except when he plays the Cardinals,” she said.

In baseball, even unconditional love has its limits.

Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX Radio in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120

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