Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pujols and storybooks

"You want the hero to stay and complete the storybook."

-Bernie Miklasz, in today's Bernie's Bytes

I'm a fan of Bernie. I don't read all of his stuff (he's far to prolific at producing content), but when I do, it's usually pretty good. He certainly knows his stuff. The line above got me thinking. I think it describes the sentimental and reasonable disappointment fans have with Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals to sign with the Angels very well. But...

Pujols leaving now means his career in St. Louis is more like an actual storybook plot arc. Think about it, kids' storybooks usually end right after the climax (in this case, the heart-stopping, improbable pennant race, playoffs and seven-game World Series victory). The Very Hungry Caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly and the book ends. In virtually every Disney movie, the guy and girl get together... and they live happily ever after. Roll the credits. Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" ends right after Scrooge's life-altering experience. In that sense, the Pujols-as-a-Cardinal book ends with him at or near his fearsome peak, as a champion, with every season one to be proud of.

But we know in reality, life goes on. Whether it's in a year or five years or more, Pujols will decline, as virtually all players do. But that's not supposed to be part of the storybook. We don't read about the Hungry Caterpillar slogging his way through a challenging season, hitting .260 as the fans uncomfortably debate if he should be benched or replaced with the Full Caterpillar.

So yes, Cardinals fans won't have to see the fading years of Pujols' career, won't have to uneasily avert their eyes when he strikes out on a pitch he would have once hit. In a Cardinal uniform, Pujols will forever be sealed in time as the best player in the game for those days, now over.

So why are Cardinals fans upset?

Because they loved him. Because he belonged in St. Louis, and his leaving IS a part of his St. Louis story. The storybook couples don't grow old in most stories, but they sure don't leave each other on the last page.

Sure, they could just trade him in for a newer model, say a shiny 2011 Prince Fielder, like politicians do with their wives. But the fans wanted to grow old with him, watch him use his otherworldly skills to stay in his prime longer than most, to win more, to hit milestones.

Ah, the milestones. I mean, Derek Jeter HAD to get his 3,000th hit as a Yankee, right? Jeter's a rare example of an icon playing with one team for his whole career, and he's also an example of how painful it can be for a beloved player to age under the microscope. He struggled in 2010 and the early part of 2011.

And then, that glorious summer day that he got the 3,00th hit. Jeter smacked five hits that day, including a home run for No. 3,000. Yankee Stadium shook. Jeter took off after that, ended up hitting .297 after the slow start. Suddenly, everyone was reminded many players are useful up until the day the retire. (And given the state of American League shortstops at the plate, .297 looks pretty good.)

Moments like that are what Cardinals fans have been robbed of. An aging athlete putting on a throwback performance is one of sport's greatest thrills. So are those long, goosebump-inducing standing ovations when the beloved icon reaches a milestone or breaks a hallowed past legend's franchise record. And a longtime sports hero digging deep to come up big in the crucible of the playoffs.

The Cards still have Yadier Molina, payroll flexibility and every bit of their rich history. But the Albert Pujols Cardinal storybook is out of pages, and for my money, that's a shame.

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