Countdowns are captivating.
We use them in the final moments before the New Year's ball drops and before the space shuttle launches. We can access, with a quick Google search and a decent dose of boredom, an online countdown to the purported end of the world (it's apparently just 673 days away, if you want to plan ahead). And as Swedish rock band Europe proved with a medley of their hit, we can use the countdown concept to great effect if it's backed by a catchy synthesizer riff.
So pardon baseball fans if they got a little caught up in the countdown to noon ET on Wednesday, when Albert Pujols and the Cardinals reached Albertageddon -- the Pujols-imposed deadline for contract-extension negotiations between the two sides.
Actually, the news broke more than an hour before the deadline that talks had broken off. But it was, for a few days there, an outlet for intrigue, as we followed reports of a team's final push to keep an icon in-house. (And yes, there was a countdown website, in case you were wondering.)
Unfortunately, this countdown was causeless.
All it did was serve to widely spread the belief -- at a time when the focus should be on optimism for the new season ahead -- that the game's greatest player is willing to leave the team he's come to represent for greener (pun intended) pastures. Pujols' self-imposed deadline might have been set with the intention of keeping his contract situation from becoming a distraction, but that's just what it is and just what it will be throughout the season.
At year's end, Pujols has every right to pursue his market value and/or what he deems to be his best chance to contend for a World Series title. He's certainly earned it, especially after pulling in less than his true market value over the past decade.
But if Pujols thinks the questions about his contract status -- posed to him, his manager and his teammates -- will cease now that the deadline has passed and position players are reporting to camp in Jupiter, Fla., he's dreaming. This was, is and will be a major story, both in St. Louis and the national media.
Furthermore, the daunting deadline served to divide the fan base between those who now view Pujols as representative of the supposed greed ruining professional sports and those who believe the Cardinals are crazy for not meeting his demands. Again, this is a time when everybody on board with the Cards -- either officially or from a rooting standpoint -- should be embracing the season ahead, not agonizing over doomsday scenarios.
Highest-paid players in the game
Below are the highest-paid players in the game for each season since Nolan Ryan became baseball's first $1 million man. The salaries listed represent the average annual value of the guaranteed portions of each contract, including signing bonuses.
Ken Griffey Jr.
*Canseco signed an extension in June 1990 that averaged $4.7 million over five years. But because of the deal's $3.5 million bonus, which was added to his $2 million salary for 1990, he earned $5.5 million that year.
Sources: Wezen-ball.com, December 2009; Baseball-Reference.com; The New York Times
You don't get to be a player of Pujols' stature without supreme focus, so this distraction likely won't affect his performance. If anything, the fact that he's potentially angling for the richest contract in the history of the game could and should motivate him all the more.
But this deadline has created an unnecessary -- possibly even incorrect -- theme to the 2011 season. Now, the focus will be that 2011 will be No. 5's last season in Cardinals colors. And the public perception of Pujols is shifting from that of a franchise face who cares about the St. Louis community to just another money-hungry mercenary looking to cash in. Fair or not, accurate or not, that's what this deadline accomplished.
In reality, without being privy to the conversations that went on between the Cardinals and Pujols' representatives the past few weeks and without knowing the full extent of what it would take to make Pujols happy and how far the Cards would go to make him happy, there's really no telling if these talks are as over as they appear.
If the Cards suddenly raise the ante later this spring or even later this season with a proposal that they believe would satisfy his demands, you can't tell me Pujols wouldn't at least mull it over. He might have been underpaid, relative to others in the game with lesser statistical triumphs, for the majority of his career, but he at least owes the Cards that much. His deadline, from that perspective, might be meaningless.
On the other hand, if the two sides are so far apart with no reasonable hope of getting a deal done before free agency, then Pujols, who has 10-and-5 rights, owes his team something else -- the option of trading him. Obviously, this scenario would require the Cards to be out of the National League Central race at midsummer (a scenario neither side wants to consider at this juncture). But if that scenario does indeed present itself, then the Cardinals ought to have the opportunity to consider trade proposals from contending teams so that they can lose their living legend and have more than just a couple future Draft picks to show for it.
It's unfortunate that last point had to be made at this time. As fans of the game, we value baseball's traditions and we increasingly value those rare players who commit to one club for the length of their careers. The only ones not rooting for Pujols to remain with the Cards are those who have a selfish (and realistic) interest in him joining their team of choice.
But the Pujols-imposed deadline has made such a topic fair game. Despite his intentions, this story won't go away. Because now that his course is a little more clear, the 2011 season, from its outset, will be made to serve, rightly or wrongly, as a countdown to the end of Pujols' Cardinals career.