After Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, there was a level of anger levied at Pujols from St. Louis Cardinals fans that was, frankly, embarrassing. There is quite a bit of revisionist history regarding Pujols, who was cheered wholeheartedly when he returned to St. Louis for the first time as a visiting player in June 2019 and even received a standing ovation after he hit a home run against the Cardinals (even as somebody who attended his first game and gave him the standing ovation when he came to the plate, I thought this was a bit much), but the tone of the crowd reaction would have at the very least been more mixed had Pujols played at Busch Stadium in 2012.
One of the biggest uphill battles that players unions face in public relations is that even when fans do not side explicitly with ownership or management, they almost inevitably side with “the team”–for most self-identified Cardinals fans, they discovered Albert Pujols through the baseball team and not the other way around. And while Pujols probably would have received boos had he returned to St. Louis in 2012 (how heavy of a concentration the boos would be is a more open question), there was never a threat that Bill DeWitt Jr. would get booed for not opening up the checkbook to keep the franchise’s greatest player in a generation or two in St. Louis, nor that John Mozeliak would get booed for not finding room in the payroll budget to keep Pujols around (of course, given the trajectory that the nearly 32 year-old first baseman’s career was about to follow, this booing would have looked pretty ridiculous in hindsight).
The anger at Albert Pujols, which ranged from silly but ultimately harmless to outright hate speech, stems from the fan idea that the athletes on their favorite teams have ascended to a higher purpose than any mere mortal and that remaining with those teams is a civic duty and moral imperative of the highest order. And it is hardly unique to St. Louis. Álex Rodríguez was booed by Seattle Mariners fans after he left for Texas in free agency and then by Rangers fans after he (with ample help from the front office) orchestrated a trade to the New York Yankees. After Bryce Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, he was booed after he returned to face the Washington Nationals and remains unpopular to this day despite the fact that the Nationals won the World Series during their first post-Harper season. Even New York Yankees fans, accustomed to fury against Hal Steinbrenner for not spending as freely as his late father George, booed Robinson Canó for having the nerve to sign with the Seattle Mariners and maximize his earnings.
Albert Pujols never cut ties with St. Louis–it was not as though if he wanted to come into town (which he did frequently, usually through the continuation of the charitable work that he established while on the Cardinals), he had to do so under cover of the night, lest the harassment become too underbearable–more likely, Pujols would be concerned with being overwhelmed by autograph requests. If New York Times columnists have taught us anything over the last few years, it is that there is a massive conflation in some circles between criticism and actual violence–there is a huge difference between Philadelphia Phillies fans lustily booing Scott Rolen every time he came back to town (pretty dumb) and the Phillies fans who threw batteries at J.D. Drew when he played in Philadelphia (straight up criminal behavior). At the absolute nadir of Pujols’s reputation in St. Louis, he was probably still decently more popular than Scott Rolen in Philadelphia and certainly more popular than J.D. Drew. Sure, some people had some regrettable tweets in the immediate aftermath that they should probably delete, but this was hardly a unique situation.
Surely, on at least some level, I’m sure that Albert Pujols is aware that a bunch of Cardinals fans got mad at him in 2011, and yet he continuously spoke glowingly of St. Louis in 2019 when he was showered with standing ovations in his return, and when it came around to 2022, a man who has earned over $344 million in his professional baseball career who absolutely does not need to keep earning MLB paychecks happily signed a $2.5 million contract to be, at best, a designated hitter on the short side of a platoon/backup first baseman to a star first baseman who hasn’t been on the Injured List since 2014.
It would be easy to trying to construct a narrative of Pujols forgiving the fans of St. Louis for their anger, or even that the 2019 return rekindled the mutual love between the two sides from the previous decade, but it is far more realistic to assume that he was more or less unmoved by the opinion of fans altogether. Albert Pujols lived in Missouri for all but one year from 1996 through 2011 (2000, which he spent primarily in Peoria, IL with the Cardinals’ A-ball affiliate), and he was in St. Louis for eleven years. St. Louis was where he and his wife Deidre effectively built their lives together. And it was where he became one of the greatest players in the history of modern professional baseball. It was where he met Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, reaching the apex of the sport with each’s first World Series title in 2006 before receiving the opportunity to reunite with them sixteen years later for what he announced yesterday will be his final season in Major League Baseball. There were surely opportunities for more playing time–post-Matt Olson trade, the Oakland Athletics are so famished at first base that they might have been willing to kick the tires on a season of him at the spot. There were surely better opportunities for chasing another title–that the defending champion, eventual 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers signed him last year suggests that, even if I don’t fully understand why, there is at least some appetite for really good teams to sign Albert Pujols. But he chose St. Louis.
When Jason Heyward returned to St. Louis in 2016 after signing with the Chicago Cubs, he was booed heavily, in a I-think-it’s-dumb-but-we-don’t-need-to-make-a-federal-case-out-of-this way akin to Scott Rolen in Philadelphia. After Kate Feldman of the New York Daily News (an otherwise solid reporter–she absolutely screwed up in the case I’m about to describe but St. Louis doesn’t need to keep holding this grudge) amplified false reports from Twitter randos that fans could be heard on the game’s ESPN broadcast yelling racial slurs (specifically that racial slur) at the African-American former Cardinals outfielder, it became part of a narrative surrounding Cardinals fans that will seemingly never die, despite post-Will Leitch, pre-Zombified Deadspin of all places investigating the matter and determining that if racial slurs actually were being used, they were not audible on the telecast.
For what it’s worth, Jason Heyward, who endeared himself to his newfound fans on the north side of Chicago by referring to the Cardinals as having an aging core (which, relative to the Cubs, was not wrong in 2015-16), said he didn’t hear anything. Neither did the man who stood next to him in the outfield that night, a man who was apparently undeterred enough that a month after helping the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, he pulled a reverse-Heyward, and Dexter Fowler signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
There is a certain level of tunnel-vision among professional athletes, but in this case, I would argue that when it comes to where players should sign, the exact opposite is true–that they are more acutely aware than anybody that sports fans across the board are all pretty much the same. Albert Pujols probably has a special fondness for Cardinals fans not because we are objectively the salt of the Earth, but because he’s familiar with us and associates us with good times, just as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright may or may not be the two most pleasant teammates in the history of the sport but are probably way up there for a guy who had such success with them.
Dexter Fowler likely signed with the Cardinals for pretty much the same reason Albert Pujols signed with the Angels–for money. And that’s fine! Professional athletes, wealthy as they become, have finite time to earn as much as they can. And I’m sure that Albert Pujols, even if money was the primary motivating factor in his move to the Los Angeles suburbs, has plenty of fond memories with the Angels–he got to play with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, for goodness sake. And those memories will not and should not disappear once he is back in his iconic #5 jersey at Busch Stadium on Opening Day nine days from now. And by the same token, those memories he built in St. Louis for the first eleven years of his big-league career never went away.