December 8, 2011 will go down as one of the darkest days in St. Louis Cardinals franchise history—the day they lost one of the greatest hitters who ever lived and the day the door closed on a decade of success.
As baseball goes, that's about as dark as it gets.
However, December 8 was merely the culmination, the fall day for a descent that began on October 31, 2011.
On October 31, Tony La Russa stepped down as Cardinals manager and Albert Pujols left town with him. That was the day Albert Pujols' return to St. Louis shifted from formality to uncertainty. That was the day his escape to the West Coast began to take form.
The Pujols-La Russa bond always stood out among player-manager relationships.
Both enjoyed the kind of stability in contract and legacy that few in this game ever realized, and that became the catalyst for a mutual trust that ran far deeper than the business of baseball usually allows.
In a profession where swirling uncertainty is the norm, Pujols and La Russa were unassailable truth. They stood distinctly, unmistakably above the franchise, and seemed beholden only to one another.
That's why La Russa jealously guarded Pujols against attacks from the press. That's why he presented Pujols with an award at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally. That's why cameras so often captured them consulting in the dugout during games. That's why Pujols even began to regurgitate some of La Russa's favorite baseball maxims.
That's why, when Pujols said La Russa was "like a father" to him upon La Russa's retirement, no one doubted the sincerity of that statement.
If that sentiment needed any further validation, Pujols provided it today.
In the end, Albert Pujols' allegiance lay with Tony La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals. When that no longer existed, Albert was for sale.
The Cardinals still had a chance—maybe even a nose on the competition. However, once La Russa left, Pujols could be bought.
And when Albert Pujols can be bought, you know someone will pay the price.