As you may have heard by now, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols will be a free agent following the 2011 season.
At one time it was nearly universally assumed that the modern-day legend would re-sign with the Cardinals, playing out his career with the only franchise he has ever known.
Who could imagine letting the best player in baseball walk away and sign with another team?
Then came the contentious contract talks, the astronomical demands (though those were more likely media speculation than anything) and the strict Feb. 16 deadline Pujols himself imposed; he refused to discuss the matter anymore until after the season following that deadline.
The requisite media circus ensued, leading fans and journalists alike to envision wild scenarios in which every possibility was explored regarding the future of baseball's greatest star.
Next came "The Hug."
In a seemingly innocuous gesture, Pujols was seen embracing Jim Hendry, general manager of the Cardinals' fierce rivals, the Chicago Cubs.
Not only were they witnessed hugging in full view of the entire baseball world, but they did so on the field at Wrigley prior to a three-game series between the two franchises.
Of course both men explained the encounter as meaningless; they have long been friends, and will continue to do so after each is gone from baseball.
However, I can completely understand how a Cardinals fan may view the embrace differently.
Chicago's North Side had already been a popular choice as the potential future destination for Pujols, considering their rivalry with the Cards, their burning desire to overturn the lack of recent success and even the fact that they only signed their current first baseman, Carlos Pena, to a one-year contract.
Pujols' future may very well lie in St. Louis—he has stated his desire to stay numerous times. But once massive dollars start getting tossed your direction, that can have a serious impact on a man's thought process, maybe even leading him to sign with a fierce division rival.
Is it possible that Pujols defecting from St. Louis to sign with the Cubs could actually be good for baseball?
Personally, I love heated rivalries in sports.
I love it when loyalty and barely-contained animosity for a fierce rival ratchets up the intensity of the on-field action and heightens the impact of each pitch, making every matchup feel like a playoff game.
Of course I don't endorse violence over sports,—that's just ridiculous and dangerous at times—but a little extra venom can be fun, adding to the excitement when particular teams face off.
Yankees/Red Sox, Lakers/Celtics, Dodgers/Giants, Cubs/Cardinals, Cardinals/Reds and Barcelona/Real Madrid are all heated, historical rivalries that regularly reignite and bring an extra dimension of drama to already-intense games.
Passions were already intensified this year when the barely consequential former-Cub Ryan Theriot moved to the Cardinals prior to the 2011 season and claimed on a St. Louis radio show that he was, "finally on the right side of the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry."
He went on to make some more disparaging remarks about his time in Chicago, certainly not endearing himself to Cubs fans.
They vociferously made their displeasure clear when he debuted at Wrigley last week in the Red and Gray uniform of the hated Cardinals.
In recent seasons, the Cardinals' rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds has seemingly overtaken that of the Cubs vs. Cards.
Can you imagine if Albert Pujols were to move north to Chicago on Interstate 55?
I greatly enjoy the historical aspect of this great game. An integral part of that history are the old venues that persevere in the age of brand new, sterile stadiums that—while impressive—lack much of the intimate charm of baseball's glorious past.
Sure, Wrigley Field has its critics. It is often derided as old-fashioned and dirty, both of which are true to some degree, but to a fan of the game, it remains one of baseball's most beloved cathedrals. Wrigley possesses an old-school charm that every baseball fan must experience.
The thought of Albert Pujols donning Cubs' pinstripes and wreaking havoc in the "friendly confines" of Wrigley have to tantalize many impartial observers. Cardinals fans would whole-heartedly disagree, but that is entirely understandable.
Wrigley doesn't possess the shorter dimensions that a lot of the new stadiums across the league do; its foul poles are actually much deeper than those of many parks. However, the cut of the fences toward center field means the power alleys are more shallow than those of many stadiums.
Depending upon the wind patterns on any given day, Wrigley can either play small or large.
When the wind blows outward during much of the summer, balls can regularly sail clear out of the stadium, taking on a majestic quality not seen in many other parks across MLB.
With just small grandstands behind the fence separating Wrigley from the surrounding neighborhoods, the old ballpark is unique, offering fans the opportunity to crowd Waveland and Sheffield Avenues hoping for souvenirs flying from the field.
Most baseball stadiums don't allow for many balls to leave the park, as the distance required to do so is preventative in most cases.
While a home run is a home run, regardless of its landing spot once beyond the fence, there is something special about a revered slugger being able to crush drives entirely out of the stadium.
Yes, we've seen it before, but steroid-fueled sluggers of the 1990's and early 2000's doing it regularly didn't seem to have the same charming effect of watching an all-time great like Albert Pujols accomplish the feat.
It's fun, it's the stuff legends are made of and just one of many reasons that Albert Pujols moving to Wrigley could be good for the game.
While inter-league rivalries generally aren't as close and bitter as those of divisional foes that face each other with frequent regularity, two teams battling for the heart of a city can stir massive interest and controversy that help sell tickets and create memorable moments.
Many of baseball's long-standing rivalries stem from the days when several teams crowded New York's baseball landscape with the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers all vying for the passions of The Big Apple. More recently the Yankees and Mets invoked those days of baseball lore when they met in the first-ever "Subway Series" in 1999's World Series.
Outside of New York City, many baseball fans may not have cared as much, but that series captured the imaginations of New Yorkers everywhere, once again making New York the center of the baseball universe, even if only temporarily.
In California, the once-mild "Freeway Series" between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers took on more animosity when Angels owner Arte Moreno adopted Los Angeles as part of the franchise name in a marketing ploy to appeal to the larger population of L.A.; the team is much closer to Orange County.
Dodgers fans felt this was a fraudulent attempt to annex L.A. simply to sell more merchandise, and it fueled what was once a friendly rivalry based upon little more than geography.
Chicago has its own rivalry between the "North Sider" Cubs and the "South Sider" White Sox. Though the teams have only met once in the World Series all the way back in 1906, the Sox and Cubbies represent variant factions of the urban Chicago demographic.
Though they haven't met often in truly consequential games, the rivalry dates all the way back to 1900 when the White Sox originally moved to Chicago from St. Paul, Minn.
Over the years, the rivalry has repeatedly been revived, as both teams served as a butt of baseball jokes referring to long championship droughts of both franchises until the White Sox finally won in 2005.
Though that was the White Sox's first title since 1917, it helped serve as an unwanted reminder that the Cubs hadn't hoisted a World Series trophy since 1908, marking the longest such streak in American professional sports.
Even President Obama, himself a White Sox fan, took an opportunity to jab the Cubs while welcoming the 2009 Yankees to the White House saying, "It's been nine years since your last title—which must have felt like eternity for Yankee fans. I think other teams would be just fine with a spell like that. The Cubs, for example."
Since the White Sox have America's "First Fan" in President Obama, the Cubs could take back some credibility by claiming Major League Baseball's best player as their own in hopes of ending their record-setting championship drought at Wrigley.
Hall of Famer Ernie Banks
No matter where your rooting interest lies, a true baseball fan must recognize the importance of the Cubs' place in the history of the game.
As the oldest franchise in baseball still playing in its city of origin since 1876, the Cubs maintain an enduring tradition in the Windy City that endears itself to fans even today.
Though the Cubs haven't lifted a World Series trophy since 1908, fans still come to Wrigley Field in droves, regularly keeping the team in the top-10 in home attendance.
Over the last decade, despite as many fifth or sixth-place finishes as playoff appearances, the Cubs have regularly placed among the top six or seven teams in attendance, highlighting the loyalty of their fan base.
The history of the Cubs is full of baseball greats, including Hall-of-Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg and Hack Wilson, among many others.
If Albert Pujols were to move to Chicago, he would be forever linked with the Cardinals, but he could restore some luster and pride in baseball's longest-standing organization, helping to propel the Cubs to a new level of greatness not seen in their last century of existence.
Of course, I don't want to shortchange the Cardinals in their historical relevance. It must be said that the Cardinals stand as the second-most successful franchise in baseball history, with their 10 World Series standing second to the Yankees' 27 championships.
Throughout their history, the Cardinals have seen many of baseball's all-time greats pass through their organization with legends such as Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Bob Gibson and most recently Pujols, playing themselves into the Hall of Fame as members of the Cardinals.
In a trend that disturbs fans of all franchises not based in New York or Boston, the recent decade or so of baseball free agency has witnessed countless stars gravitating toward the big money and massive media markets of those two baseball cities.
Anytime a big-name, established star reaches free agency, it is widely assumed that said player will inevitably be signed by the Yankees or Red Sox.
Of course with stars like Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez inked at first base for the long-term future in New York and Boston, it would seem ludicrous that either team would be interested in the services of Albert Pujols. He is also a first baseman after all and wouldn't appear to fit the needs of either team.
But when you're talking about a once-in-a-lifetime player of Pujols' stature, one can never discount either of those high-profile franchises.
Let's not forget though that Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States with almost three million residents within city limits and more than nine million people in the greater Chicago metro area.
The White Sox and Cubs rank fifth and sixth respectively in terms of MLB payrolls, so they spend their fair share of money on players in Chicago as well.
Chicago is a great baseball town, and seeing someone like Albert Pujols in the Windy City could help make it a desirable location for would-be free agents to consider, reinvigorating the luster of years' past.
Albert Pujols is undoubtedly a great player. With more than 400 home runs, nearly 1,300 RBI and 2,000 hits,—all at age 31—Pujols stands poised to put up some truly historical numbers over the course of his career.
With a Rookie of the Year award, three MVP awards and a World Series title under his belt, Pujols already has collected enough accolades for a stellar career, but has plenty of time to add more.
The question is though, regardless of his productivity, do the Cardinals really want to commit 30 percent of their overall payroll to a player who will turn 32 prior to the 2012 season?
In all honesty, even with Pujols in the fold, the Cardinals have only appeared in the playoffs one time in the four seasons since winning the World Series in 2006. That appearance consisted of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, in which St. Louis was outplayed in every facet of the game.
Of course baseball is a team game, and the failures of the Cardinals to replicate their success of 2006 cannot be laid on one man alone. But that's also part of the point; successful baseball teams rely upon strength throughout the roster, not solely on the fortunes of a singular marquee player.
Unfortunately, when a team has a player of Pujols' talents and stature, the expectation is that he will be paid like a savior, when in reality, one man can only do so much.
Further complicating the matter is that Pujols is off to his worst start to a season in his illustrious career. After a quarter of the season, Pujols is currently hitting .266 with only a .418 slugging percentage and leading the NL with 11 double-play ground outs.
As a .330 lifetime hitter with a career slugging percentage of .619, the poor start has to be alarming, even if it only represents a fraction of the season. But if one is expecting to be the highest-paid player in the game, a precipitous drop-off in productivity doesn't bode well for such endeavors.
One can imagine the tone of the conversation if he played in New York or Boston.