Though upper management and ownership have kept mostly mum regarding talks, manager Tony La Russa spent more than half of his 45-minute media session on Sunday answering questions about the three-time National League Most Valuable Player. La Russa acknowledged that whether a deal gets done or not, questions about the matter will follow the club all year. He also insisted that Pujols' situation will not trip up the team in its quest for a division title.
"They're working to get it set," La Russa said. "Fingers crossed. In the meantime, we've got a really good club, and he's a part of it -- and we've got to get ready. I keep hearing this thing about distractions. You allow yourself to get distracted. We're not going to allow ourselves to get distracted -- which means you're going to get a lot of non-answers. Hopefully the players will do the same. It's not what we're here for."
Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, has notified the Cardinals that if a deal is not reached before Pujols arrives at Spring Training, negotiations will cease until after the season. The slugger is slated to arrive at camp on Wednesday, meaning that the window for a deal has become extremely narrow.
In La Russa's mind, whether it gets done or not, questions will persist. If Pujols does not sign, it's obvious that fans and media will have interest in his situation throughout the season. But the manager insisted that even if a contract is signed, other questions will loom -- such as the fates of other high-salaried Cardinals players within a new salary structure for the team.
But he nonetheless downplayed the idea that those questions would be to blame if his team doesn't reach its goals in the upcoming season.
"It won't be accurate," he said. "Because it's in our hands -- coaching staff, the manager -- to set the right direction. It's in the hands of the players to concentrate on playing games, and not make excuses. It won't be accurate. If we play bad, it's because we weren't good enough to play good -- or the leadership on the field wasn't good enough. It's an excuse. We're either going to be good enough or not. And Albert's going to be good enough."
For the most part, La Russa avoided weighing in with any opinions about the actual negotiations. He did lament, though, what he feels is excessive pressure placed on players by the Major League Baseball Players Association to pursue top dollar in contract dealings.
"I've been through it for many years, going way back to Chicago," La Russa said. "The pressure that a high-profile player receives from the union and his representatives to push for the last dollar, neglecting anything else about that decision -- type of organization, longevity, loyalty, all that -- I don't think that's a real healthy part of our game. And it's not just the Cardinals. The union, they're out there for their players, and they want to keep setting that bar higher and higher. ...
"Knowing Albert, he's a very strong, strong man. He's not going to listen to the union or his representative more than he's going to listen to the man upstairs or his family. But that can be unfair, putting a player in that position. Albert's a great example, but it happens on every team, every year, and I never have appreciated that. There should be an acknowledgment about the best situation, and it's not always about dollars. And maybe I shouldn't categorize the representatives that way, because sometimes some, more than others, factor it in. Others don't. But I know the union, they're all for raise the bar, raise the bar."
La Russa did admit that he hopes his players will avoid answering too many questions about Pujols' situation. He claimed he wouldn't mandate silence -- but that he would strongly encourage it.
"It's America," La Russa said. "I'm going to explain why I think that's counterproductive to us. It's all going to be about trying to be as good as we can be. And there's a lot of stuff on that list that we need to get in place and on our side. That's one of the things."
Perhaps the question that came up most, though, was about the reputations of both player and club. As the uncertainty regarding Pujols has dragged on, some fans have begun to take sides between player and club. La Russa emphasized that he does not believe either Pujols or the team will suffer any long-term damage in the public eye, however things turn out.
"You're asking my opinion -- somebody else might answer different," he said. "I don't think either side can get bruised, because they've got too many points going into this thing. You've just got to understand, there's a process here. Albert has a choice to make. The organization is going to do the very best [it] can to represent the organization. I don't think, whichever way it goes, I don't think either side can get bruised. If it works out, everybody's happy with both sides.
"I think the biggest bruising would be if a team that looks like we should be in contention, plays like chumps. I think our fans would be more unhappy [if] we don't have a contending 2011 season. I don't mean anything about Albert and the St. Louis Cardinals, but this is a team. He is the best player, but I think it's more important to our fans that the 2011 Cardinals do something that resembles the history of the organization."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.