MLB Free Agency: Could Albert Pujols Be the LeBron James of the Winter?

Reed Domer-Shank@ReedDS20Correspondent IApril 22, 2011

I’ll admit it: I hopped on the LeBron James bandwagon.

The LeBrandwagon, if you will.

As a youngster in Southern Ohio, I never really paid the Cavaliers much mind. Perhaps it was because Cleveland was five hours away. Perhaps it was because, as a Reds and Bengals fan, I was taught to despise the Browns. Or, maybe it was because the history of the Cavs’ franchise basically started with Mark and ended in Price.

Regardless, when LBJ came along, I (like the rest of Ohio) fell in love.

I couldn’t help it, no one could. Could you blame us?

Through sheer miraculous good fortune (or, some would say, the grace of a higher power) LeBron Raymone James fell to his hometown Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery. From there, the gifts seemed to rain from the skies.

Triple-doubles. 50-point games. An arena and fan-base reborn. Hope, in a city that needed it more than most.

LeBron took Cleveland further even than most fans could imagine—perennially in the playoffs, and to the brink of an NBA Championship in 2007.

The Cavs fell short that year, and they fell even shorter the three years after. Yet, while frustration slowly mounted throughout Ohio, blame rarely shifted to the Golden Boy. For, despite the tired, uncoordinated cast of characters assembled around him, LeBron always gave the Cavs a shot.

Nope, in Ohio, LeBron could rarely do wrong.

Until, one day, he did.

By now, we all know the story. Hell, the six year-old living in a Mumbai storm drain knows the story. Anyone with a pulse can vividly recount the series of events that lead to “the King” fleeing his kingdom.

Like so many poignant moments in sports history, most of us will always remember down to the longitudinal coordinate where we were when LeBron-Bron dropped his LeBomb-Bomb.

Or, rather, we’ll never be able to forget.

It was the day that a light went out over the city of Cleveland. It was a day when a people’s champion delivered an unexpected, traitorous blow. It was a sobering jolt of heresy in an otherwise tranquil domain.

In a day, Akron’s Superman tore down every mountain he had built in Ohio. And by fleeing to Miami’s sunnier pastures, LeBron James, the best player in the world, immediately went from king of the jungle to cowardly, self-serving hyena.

It’s truly hard to fathom the attention the LeBron saga has garnered, even beyond his indulgent TV special, throughout the NBA regular season and still today.

While a testament to the atrocity that was “The Decision”, the hate spewed LeBron’s way from nearly every angle, speaks just as well to his status among basketball’s all-time greats.

Few are the athletes who have the chance to draw the unwavering attention of sports fans across the globe. That can suspend a world of onlookers, as if hanging from a string.  

LeBron James did it, and did it bigger and uglier than any athlete ever has.

That is, possibly, until now.

Similar to the NBA, Major League Baseball has one star that has risen above the rest. One man whose pulse is that of an entire Midwestern city. One man who, should he desire, could move mountains.

That man is THE Albert Pujols.

Similar to LeBron James, Pujols is larger than life.

While most players struggle to hit 20 home runs in a season, Pujols hit 37 as a rookie, and hasn’t hit less than 32 in 10 years since.

As impressive a combination of power and precision as ever there has been, Pujols holds a lifetime batting average of .330. He’s been an All-Star for nine of his 10 seasons and, were he to retire today, Pujols would undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Yet, similar to LeBron, Pujols’ mystique isn’t a paint by number. Like “King James”, the impact of “Prince Albert” truly transcends the box score.

There are nights where Pujols will win games by himself. The mere thought of facing his machine-like consistency makes pitchers call in sick. And, most importantly, like James, Pujols ensures that his team will have a shot, no matter who you put around him.

That’s why, like the city of Cleveland before them, St. Louis could be in for a world of hurt.

Unlike any season in recent memory, Cardinals fans find themselves at a terrifying crossroads. A man that has meant everything to their franchise, who is sometimes the ONLY reason to keep watching, could have one of his size 12 cleats out the door.

Sadly, there is no denying the similarities that exist between the conundrum of the King and the plight of the Prince.

Like LeBron before him, Albert Pujols looks poised to enter free agency as one of the few sports characters who can literally choose their own adventure. Also, like James, Albert’s decision carries with it the weight of town entrenched in its Midwestern ideals, not the least of which is loyalty.

So, then, the question becomes whether Albert, super-uber-mega star Pujols, will follow in the footsteps of LeBron and leave his people in ruin, his town a smoking rubble.

This question has been analyzed, re-analyzed and de-analyzed again and again. It has, no doubt, been an anvil on the minds of Redbird fans everywhere since the St. Louis organization began its contract dance with Pujols last fall.

Everyone in St. Louie wants to know what it will take to keep their idol in town. And, more importantly, everyone is scared of what might cause him to leave.

By all rights, Pujols could be playing his last season as a Cardinal. Realistically, when all the money is on the table, Pujols could fold his hand full of hearts and cash out.

Unimpressed by a St. Louis offer, possibly even insulted, Prince Albert could leave St. Louis and never return. However, the St. Louis faithful can take solace in one thing, if nothing else: Albert Pujols is no LeBron.

LeBron spent months insisting he had no favorite, exalting in his suitors’ lavish attempts at wooing him.

Pujols has quietly, determinedly maintained that there is only one place he wants to play: St. Louis.

LeBron wanted so badly to win that he fell in line behind one of his greatest rivals.

Pujols KNOWS he can win, and wants nothing more than for it to be as a Cardinal.

Lebron’s "people" arranged for an hour-long ESPN special to announce his signing, a shocking display of vanity under the thin veil of charity work (proceeds went to the Boys and Girls Club).

Pujols’ "people" ARE his charity work—specifically, the Albert Pujols Family Foundation, a charity benefiting families affected by Down syndrome, headed up by his wife Diedre.

Witness THAT.

While it’s true that parallels exist between the situations of James and Pujols, the two men couldn’t be more different. 

So, St. Louis, take comfort in that dichotomy.

Appreciate that, while what you could be in for (a tearful goodbye to a living legend) might rip you asunder, a part of you will smile as you wave goodbye. For, if it were up to Pujols, he’d be a Cardinal for life.

That’s loyalty, and it should mean something.

LeBron’s choice to leave Cleveland hurt. Beyond dealing a crushing blow to the commerce and economy of the area, his departure left a painful void in the hearts of fans. However, while being chosen last (or not chosen at all) certainly stings, it’s the taunting laughter that follows that cuts straight to the soul.

LeBron could have been like Pujols.

He could have stated his demands early. He could have declared that every ounce of him WANTED to stay, but that there were factors in place that made it impossible. Or, he could have just been honest and said that, for as much as the city, the region, the state has given him, it was time for him to move on.

(And, frankly, if it were about charity, he could have written the Boys Club a damned check.)

He could have done it quietly. Honestly.

Instead, King James decided to parade the feelings of those that supported him from childhood through high school, from small-time to prime-time. Instead of sitting down with Cavs’ management and explaining his decision, he told them moments before it would be broadcast to the world. LeBron forever sullied his ties with Ohio, and quickly fled the scene.

Yes, Cards fans, take heart.

You may lose your star.

You may even send him to one of your greatest rivals (word is the Cubbies have interest…ugh).

But, should the organization drop the act and pay him what he is worth, Pujols will undoubtedly be a Cardinal to his grave, which is exactly what he has wanted all along. Either way, in his heart, Pujols will always be a Cardinal. And, whether he stays or goes, Prince Albert will do it with respect.

That’s the kind of bandwagon worth jumping on. 


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