For a relative small-market team, the St. Louis Cardinals have had many of the finest baseball players ever wear their jersey.
Of the 42 Hall of Famers to pass through their dugout, perhaps the most famous thus far has been Stan "The Man" Musial.
Getting a player of Musial's caliber is an extremely rare occurrence in Major League Baseball. He collected 3,630 hits and 475 home runs in 22 years with the team. "The Man" was so good, he went to 24 All-Star Games and helped the Cardinals win three World Series.
The team never thought they'd ever see a player on his level in their uniform again, but all of that changed when they received a massive amount of good luck by drafting Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. They had no idea how lucky they were to grab the 19-year-old but quickly found out when he made his major league debut just two years later.
He has been named to the All-Star team every year but one since 2001. The only year he didn't, 2002, still saw him finish second in the vote for Most Valuable Player of the National League. Pujols has won the MVP Award three times while finishing second twice and third once. He has also won the Hank Aaron Award, an award that goes to the top hitter, twice and NL Rookie of the Year Award
But the man who has won six Silver Slugger Awards and a batting title is not just great at the plate. Pujols has reeled in two Gold Gloves. He is also a philanthropist whose charitable work has garnered him a Roberto Clemente Award.
All of this ability helped St. Louis win a World Series in 2006. He is often called the best player in baseball, and Pujols already has 1,900 hits, 408 home runs and 1,230 runs batted in over his 10 seasons—numbers reserved for few players to ever don cleats on a diamond.
After Pujols won the batting title in 2003, St. Louis signed the 23-year-old youngster to an eight-year contract for $111 million. Though a hefty deal for many, Alex Rodriguez would sign a 10-year contract for $275 million just four years later. Pujols' contract seemed a huge bargain by comparison, and most observers considered him paid well below market value through most of the deal.
Pujols' contract expires at the end of the upcoming season, and he is just 31 years old—prime baseball years for many players. He has been so loyal to his team and the St. Louis community that he has not complained about the fact he is being paid less than many players extremely inferior to him.
Yet the Cardinals organization is playing a game with Pujols right now that could end up as shocking as Anheuser-Busch, who owned the Cardinals from 1953 to 1995, selling their beer factory to a Brazilian-Belgian company—a move that could cause Cardinals fans to spit out their formerly All-American Budweiser brew.
Baseball players meet at training camp on Feb. 18th, and Pujols told the Cardinals long ago he'd prefer a deal done beforehand so he could put all of his focus on the game. Since he has shown what he can do when just concentrating on baseball, one would think the Cardinals would have sealed the deal by now.
Yet this is not the case. The team is balking at Pujols' request to be paid at market value, something most every other team in baseball would gladly do to retain his services. While Pujols wants a deal better than Rodriguez, which would symbolize him as the top player in baseball, the Cardinals are using the stance they are not the big market club some other teams are.
If they let Pujols go to training camp without at least a verbal agreement, St. Louis may lose more than the best player in baseball at the conclusion of this season. They will lose the face of their franchise and of all professional sports in their city, as well as a first ballot Hall of Famer who appears to have at least a decade of baseball ahead of him.