I am a die-hard Cubs fan and Albert Pujols' decision to sign with the Angels for 10 years and 250 million dollars saddens me.
How does that make sense?
In my (not so long) lifetime, I have seen most of sport's bastions of loyalty shattered. Perhaps the rarest, and most sacrosanct, was loyalty to a single team throughout a player's career. Never common, it came to define what was best, and worst, about sports. A world once romanticized by fans as a place where money made way for love and loyalty turned slowly into an environment where dollar signs, business principles, and pride are now the name of the game. Albert Pujols' departure represents the completion of that transformation.
The Cardinals were different. If you were from the National League Central Division, friend or foe, you know that was true. The franchise plays in the heartland, has the most respectful, knowledgeable fan base in baseball, and protects its stars from negative media scrutiny. It parades its former greats in pristine bright red sports coats on warm spring days, letting them soak in the adoration of fans who still remember them decades after they are gone from the baseball diamond.
Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Mark McGuire...Albert Pujols.
Pujols, a Missourian since high school, a Cardinal his whole career, and the best hitter of his generation, was supposed to be the leader of that pack of all-time greats. Pujols has been the personification of Cardinal differentness his whole career: a consistently excellent team player whose focus has always been on winning championships and becoming the best player in St. Louis history. As sports fans watched Alex Rodriguez become a Yankees mercenary, Pedro Martinez leave for the Mets, and Barry Bonds become a performance-enhanced court spectacle, they could always count on seeing Albert Pujols batting calmly and quietly, winning MVPs and World Series championships in a Cardinals uniform.
No more. And it stings.
Loyalty in sports has been a myth for a long time. Fans watch movies like Field of Dreams and Hoosiers and convince themselves that loyalty is the defining, beautiful quality that sets sports apart. No one is immune: I watch Michael Jordan's Bulls championship highlights on ESPN Classic and do my best to forget he finished his career in a Washington Wizards uniform. But the reality is that loyalty only matters to fans; to players and owners, sports is just a highly specialized branch of the entertainment business.
Yet, fans used to have their illusions. Surrounded by evidence to the contrary, we were able to cling to the one or two stubborn examples that once proved us right. For sports loyalty: only one strong example was left after Derek Jeter and the Yankees barely agreed on an extension last year: Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. Now, it's gone.
That's the sad part. The sports world is a business, sure. But it used to be a business with illusions, a world with scattered examples that fans pointed to when they said: sports is different, it's special. Now, the last of those illusions is gone, wrapped up nicely in a bright and shiny Angels uniform, and the stark reality is inescapable. If there is no loyalty in sports, no special unspoken and unbreakable bond between players and fans, then what separates a sports game from a music concert?
With our illusions gone, what makes sports special anymore?
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