Baseball's LeBron: Why Albert Pujols Could Sign with the Red Sox

Mike DowlingContributor IIIOctober 1, 2011

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals follows through his swing during the game at Busch Stadium on September 11, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis defeated the Atlanta 6-3. (Photo by David Welker/Getty Images)
David Welker/Getty Images

Please suspend disbelief for just a few moments. Nothing in this article is anything more than speculation. I have no insight into Albert Pujols' thoughts. I might be delusional.

Albert Pujols, the most consistently great first baseman in recent baseball history, has allowed himself to become a free agent this offseason for the first time in his career. Beyond his current Cardinals squad, there doesn't appear to be a logical landing spot for him this winter.

His free agency comes at a time when one of the game's most notorious, big-spending organizations is reeling from the kind of disappointment and upheaval that hasn't been seen there in years. Nobody inside or outside of the organization has any idea what the 2012 Red Sox will look like, from the general manager position on down to the players.

No one seriously believes Pujols will leave St. Louis. Sure, he resisted signing an extension. He tipped his cap to the home fans and was non-committal about his future after possibly his final home game last week. But this is understood to be simple posturing to ensure the biggest possible payday from his current employers in Missouri.

But what if it's not? What if Boston is able to make a legitimate run at signing Pujols?

It's Ridiculous, right? The Sox have Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at first. Plus, Pujols is an icon in baseball-crazed St. Louis and couldn't possibly reduce himself to being a mercenary on a big-market club, right?

Not necessarily. If Prince Albert was 100 percent committed to St. Louis, he would have signed an extension already. Instead, he allowed his contract status to hang over the heads of his teammates throughout an already nerve-racking season when they fought until the season's last moments to secure a playoff spot. Everyone assumes this is just posturing, but nobody knows for sure except the man himself.

If Pujols were to go to Boston, he'd have to switch positions to either right field or third base. This might not be an option for him this late in his career. But it could be. Alex Rodriguez shifted to third for the Yankees. Pujols is an elite athlete, and he could surely adjust if he really wanted to.

But beyond mundane decisions like which position to play, there could be something bigger at stake for Pujols: marketability. Not "elite baseball player" marketability, but real, crossover celebrity marketability. There is a truly dramatic difference between the two.

Right now, there are only two baseball players among the top 20 richest athletes in the world, according to Forbes: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. They make so much more money because they have access to endorsements that other baseball players don't have. They're national icons, celebrities on and off the field. Non-baseball fans know who they are and care about what they endorse.

Not only do these two play for the same team, but barring some late-career resurgences they both appear to have passed their prime fairly recently. When they're gone, who will be the face of pro baseball? Who will non-baseball fans think of when the game is mentioned to them?

Pujols is one of the game's all-time greats already, but he has never reached that celebrity status. Jeter can endorse Discover Card, Gillette and Ford. He has his own cologne. Pujols has no endorsements for companies outside either the sports world or the St. Louis area. Part of this is because he is understood to be a quiet and unassuming person, but part of it is because of the market he plays in.

Continuing to live a quiet life in a city that many Americans can't find on a map will ensure that he remains a celebrity only in the world of baseball, while millions of Americans remain oblivious to his existence. This will forever hinder his marketability.

If Pujols wants Jeter's marketability, he can't stay with the Cards.
If Pujols wants Jeter's marketability, he can't stay with the Cards.Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

This is where the move to Boston comes in. A story of this magnitude, where one of the sport's best players leaves the small market team that he broke in with for a stocked team in a glamorous market, will inevitably lead to comparisons to LeBron James' move from Cleveland to Miami.

This comparison is unsound, as Pujols has won a championship, unlike LeBron. He did not grow up in St. Louis like LeBron grew up near Cleveland, and he plays a different game that puts much less value on obtaining the subjective label of superstar by the media.

But this wouldn't prevent the comparison from being made. Pujols would be the talk of both the sports world and the Twitterverse all through the offseason. He would have legitimate, comprehensive national exposure for the first time.

Following up this media firestorm with success in Boston could elevate Pujols into the elusive status of "baseball icon who is also a legitimate national celebrity." He would be a polarizing figure, sure, but in 2011 it's polarizing figures who get national attention. National attention equals instant marketability for someone like Pujols.

This supersizing of Pujols' marketability isn't possible anywhere else. A large market is a prerequisite. In New York, he'd be overshadowed by Jeter and Rodriguez until they retire, at which point he'll probably be past his prime (and he'd be a punchline if he were to consider a move to the Mets).

The LA Dodgers' national profile has suffered too much for a West Coast move to significantly boost his marketability. If he were to lead the Chicago Cubs to victory, he could probably attain superstar status and elite marketability, but they are in the middle of a thorough rebuilding project and won't be competitive by adding one great player.

Boston needs Pujols, but does Pujols need Boston?
Boston needs Pujols, but does Pujols need Boston?Elsa/Getty Images

Boston isn't too far removed from their glory years. A change in culture, some smart additions to the starting rotation and one more great bat in the lineup could give them title contender status.

But after the collapse of 2011, they need dramatic change both on the field and in the locker room. They need a respected veteran figure who can both produce on the field and fill the leadership void that obviously exists in the clubhouse. No free agent fits that description better than Pujols. With the contracts of JD Drew and David Ortiz off the books, the Sox could pay Pujols plenty of salary to supplement his new endorsement deals.

Only one question remains: does Pujols want to be on the Forbes list, with more money than he knows what to do with? Does he want to be a crossover celebrity?

He might not.

He has never been a lighting-rod figure like LeBron or A-Rod. He disappears during the offseason to train. He's always been perceived as a rare "team-first" superstar, never one to hog the spotlight. He probably could have left St. Louis earlier if he wanted to. If he's content with being one of the most beloved people in St. Louis and a universally respected baseball legend, then St. Louis is the place where he should remain for the rest of his playing days.

But if he wants real, obscene wealth—if he wants real marketability, if he wants everyone in America to know who he is, then maybe he should pick up the phone when John Henry and Theo Epstein call.