Call him anything, but don’t call him a thief

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

This wasn’t just a celebratory hug after Pujols walked a win off with a sacrifice fly; Albert Pujols made Mike Trout a friend as well as a protege.

When the Angels decided it was time at last to let Albert Pujols go as gently as possible into that good gray baseball night, I wasn’t the only baseball observer to say it was heartbreaking. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, either, to say his decline following his first Anaheim season was just as heartbreaking.

But I’m still astonished, if not sickened to my stomach, from seeing assorted social media denizens speaking as one such baseball group member did after the Dodgers dropped more than a few jaws by signing Pujols as a bench and very occasional role player for the rest of the season.

“Where are they going to put him? There’s [sic] no [designated hitter] in the NL, and hopefully there never will be one,” said one in particular. “He can afford a rocking chair with all the money he stole from the Angels.”

Stole?

Bad enough the gentleman writing those words clings to one of baseball’s most nebulous and negative traditions. (Pitchers overall have hit .158/.207/.199 from the end of the 1910s until the end of 2020, for a big fat .406 OPS. As of this morning, they’re hitting .102/.136/.137 in 2021, for a whopping .273 OPS.)

But “all that money he stole from the Angels?” Rest assured, this gentleman probably isn’t even close to the only fan who feels that way. He just so happened to put it into cold print,  and I just so happened to catch it in cold print.

What he and anyone else thinking like that is really saying is that a player ground down as Pujols was because of injuries is nothing but a common thief. Well, I heard and saw Yankee fans and observers say similar things about now-retired Jacoby Ellsbury, too. As if they held their teams at gunpoint for x number of seasons.

If you thought Joe and Jane Fan believe losing is practically mortal sin, there are times that seems nothing compared to what they seem to think about being injured on the job.

When the Yankees gave up the ghost and elected to pay Ellsbury the $26 million left on his contract not to play for them any longer, I wondered aloud what it might have done to a man knowing he couldn’t do his job because his body kept him from doing it no matter what his heart and mind desired—and, because it made him a hate object among the witless.

“It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary,” I wrote then. “On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.”

Ellsbury was talented and tenacious (and a two-time World Series champion) when he could play. He wasn’t a Pujols-level talent, but he could and often did break a game open with his own skill set, too. Yet one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about returning to the Red Sox when he hit free agency was because, appropriately, he was fed up over incessant clubhouse whispers that he took too much of his own sweet time recovering from injuries.

“It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete,” I wrote then, too. “Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose sound medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.”

For Joe and Jane Fan, the paradox which is borderline hypocrisy is that they put on pedestals ballplayers who play through injuries regardless of whether that might lead to further injury, as it usually does—but then Joe and Jane Fan become the first to denounce the big jerks for playing through the earlier injuries only to incur bigger and more costly ones.

Pujols’s problems in Anaheim began when he developed plantar fasciitis in one of his heels during spring training 2013. He’d had a first season with the Angels in 2012 that resembled a down season on his terms but a career year for mere mortals.

Then, in late July 2013, he suffered a tear to that bothersome area during a game against the Athletics, while running out a ninth-inning base hit off Grant Balfour. He rehabbed the foot and heel as best he could until the Angels, out of contention by then, shut him down for the rest of that season.

It never got better for him. What nobody outside the Angels clubhouse really knew was that if his feet and legs could drain him, nothing and no one could drain Pujols’s iron will.

“He could easily have shut down a couple of these years. But just the toughness is off the charts,” said Mike Trout to The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya in 2019. “A lot of guys would have shut it down for good. He plays banged-up, doesn’t complain. I think that’s what people don’t see.”

“I’ll remember,” said ESPN writer Alden Gonzalez, after the Angels finally designated Pujols for assignment, “that even though his lower half was shot and he wasn’t quick enough to get around on the devastating stuff pitchers throw these days, he still showed up early, still spent hours in the training room to get ready for games, still took batting practice with intent, still crouched really low on defense and still looked for any opportunity to take an extra base. He might not have been productive, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.”

Trout was right. Showing up at the ballpark early and spending hours in the training room despite the physical sappings is what Joe and Jane Fan didn’t see. Maybe they didn’t want to see. Maybe they couldn’t believe the guy who’d played as off the charts as Pujols did as a Cardinal was forced into a far steeper decline phase to his career than he should have been.

Maybe they still clung to the illusion that a nine-figure payday in and of itself could keep a man Superman despite his body turning him into Clark Kent.

In only one way did Pujols have himself to blame for the outside perception that he was just going downhill at warp speed no matter how much money he was paid. He wasn’t the type to lament continuously over his lower body’s continuing betrayals. So much so that, when he finally did speak up about it, in the same 2019 Athletic piece, Joe and Jane Fan didn’t and wouldn’t listen.

“It’s made my move here so tough,” Pujols said to Ardaya then. “I don’t wish that anyone would have had those lower-half injuries, because I know that when I’m healthy, I know what I can do. To come over here and just be pounded by injury after injury, year after year . . . This game is tough when you’re at 100 percent with no injuries. Then imagine dealing with knee, heel, elbow, everything. It’s just tough, man.”

Pujols isn’t the only baseball player who ever kept believing to his soul that all he had to do was return to reasonable health to be what he once was. He isn’t the only player who’s learning the hardest way possible that there comes a time when the badly compromised body married to your age just wouldn’t let you be that anymore.

But not all such players get paid $255 million over ten years, whether they’re future Hall of Famers or future Hall of Shamers.

Nobody held the Angels at gunpoint, either, to offer Pujols that deal in the first place when nobody else was considering it, including the Cardinals (who didn’t until Pujols was practically taking measurements for his Angels uniform), or to keep him on the field when his body was clearly and cruelly draining him faster than a proper decline phase should have done.

Writing in The Inside Game last year, Keith Law came right out and said the Angels were foolish to keep suiting Pujols up even as a designated hitter, despite that iron will, because his body compromised him too deeply.

“If you have already paid for something,” Law wrote, nodding toward the guaranteed deal, “your choice of whether to use it should be a function of whether you want or need to use it, not a function of the money that is already gone regardless of what you do.” Don’t even go there about “eating money” if that’s what the Angels had elected to do. “Major league baseball player contracts are guaranteed,” Law wrote. “[T]here is no way to un-eat that meal.”

It’s one thing to argue against guaranteed long-term baseball contracts in all but the most unique circumstances. It’s something else entirely to argue against one retroactively because the player who signed one got hit unexpectedly with one of the worst injury bugs in baseball history a year after he finished his first season under such a deal.

The clumsiness with which the Angels parted with Pujols speaks only further ill of a team whose administrative culture makes a pratfalling putz resemble Joe DiMaggio roaming center field. The Dodgers’ willingness to bring him aboard even as a part-time bench player, perhaps an occasional first base fill-in, would look a lot better if there wasn’t even the momentary sense that it was a concurrent chance to stick it to their down-freeway rival.

It won’t cost the Dodgers a dollar beyond the pro-rated minimum major league salary to give Pujols one more chance at possible postseason triumph and a possible third World Series ring that the Angels couldn’t. (The Angels’ chronic inability to build a viable pitching staff has harmed them several years; if the Pujols deal tied their hands financially, the Angels haven’t been brilliant at drafting pitching or even acquiring low-cost/high-enough-performance arms, either.)

Personally, I’d hoped Pujols would surrender to his body’s betrayals and call it a career sooner, if only because he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore and hadn’t really been for too long through no fault of his own. I wanted him to be as close to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as possible, Schmidt having retired in May 1989 because, essentially, he didn’t believe he was Mike Schmidt anymore.

Such Hall of Famers as Willie Mays and Steve Carlton couldn’t do it, either; we saw their baseball ghosts a little too long. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax did do it when he was still ten dimensions beyond the top of his game: “I don’t regret one minute of the past twelve seasons, but I might regret the season that was one too many.” Even more so than Schmidt, Koufax left the world wanting more, not less.

Whether mere mortal or Hall of Fame immortal, not every player is as self-aware as Koufax and Schmidt. But there’s another kind of self-awareness that imposes a cruelty of its own. It’s the kind Pujols has, the kind that kept him grinding his way back in search of the trans-dimensional greatness he once evoked. The kind that guaranteed him a berth in the Hall of Fame before his body left him nothing but his will.

Knowing what we should know now of that stubborn will no matter what Mother Health and Father Time declared otherwise, we should accept that Pujols earned the chance to leave the field with whatever remains of his professional dignity intact. Maybe he has one more game- or set-changing swing left in him. Maybe he doesn’t.

But calling him the thief who stole all that money from the Angels, however, is way out of line, Joe and Jane Fan. It exposes you as the couple too witless to comprehend just what Pujols put himself through to live up to that contract no matter how often his body told his heart and mind where to shove it.

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