Friday, April 8, 2011

Albert and The Court of Public Opinion

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 9:52 AM

click to enlarge courtroom.jpg
Albert Pujols
is not having a very good season so far. 

Nothing in that statement we don't already know, of course. He has just one home run in six games and is hitting just .182. A .558 OPS. As un-Albertian as you can possibly get. In fact, if you really want to know just how bad a start to the season Pujols has experienced to this point, consider this fact: Albert has three runs batted in on the season. He has grounded into four double plays. 

However, as rough as his on-field 2011 has been so far, that's actually not what I'm talking about when I say he's not having a very good season. What I mean is something a bit more abstract, but still quite meaningful. 

I think Albert might be losing the fans. 

I listen to a lot of sports talk radio. Not necessarily because I want to, but because it's sort of part of my job as a semi-professional semi-sportswriter. And in listening to sports talk recently, I've noticed something interesting in the wind. 

On Opening Day, after the Cardinals' loss to the Padres in which Albert grounded into three double plays, I was in my car, listening to the postgame show, and several of the callers brought up the rough day he had just had. The theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, was something along the lines of, "That's the kind of performance he wants $30 million a year for?!" 

At the time, I just sort of let those comments roll right off. In one ear and out the other. After all, it was a frustrating loss, and people make all sorts of ridiculous, over-the-top proclamations when things go wrong. It's just the nature of fandom. What I did notice, in particular, was a couple callers complaining about Albert and Yadier Molina not running hard to first on obvious groundball outs. In Molina's defense, I'm convinced he really does run hard all the time; it just always looks like he's moving in slow motion. Still, just grumbling from people frustrated with a bad Opening Day game, I thought. 

Then I went to the Cards' third game of the season, the day Jaime Garcia single-handedly got the team into the win column. Again that day Albert was relatively quiet, and there was a man sitting in the row in front of me talking to the rest of his group. He sounded an awful lot like the radio callers. 

"He wants how much to pop out with men on base?" 

"For the kind of money he's wanting, you'd think he could run a little harder." 

"I know he's supposed to be the best player in baseball and everything, but for the kind of money he's asking for he should pitch, too." 

"Hell, they oughta take all that money Albert's asking for and give this kid (referring to Garcia), a contract. At least he's doing his job today." 

Again, I didn't honestly think that much of it. Dude at the ballpark, maybe a little too much to drink...maybe not the most representative sample, you know? Still, it didn't seem as if any of his companions were really demurring when he would spout off about Albert; in fact, it seemed just the opposite. There was a lot of nodding and murmurs of agreement, to be completely honest. 

I made it a point to listen to the radio the next few days, as well as paying extra attention anytime I heard the Cardinals mentioned just in conversation. And what I heard, honestly, was really surprising. I heard plenty more callers dissatisfied with all sorts of things about Albert. He didn't always hustle, he's striking out too much the past two years, he's getting up there in age, he just isn't the same player he was a few years back. All of it coming down to one overreaching idea: Albert Pujols just isn't worth the money. 

Now, I don't claim public opinion has turned completely against Albert, by any means. But I was surprised to hear even a vocal minority downing him. Pujols is looked at almost as a saint by many in this town, and I can't imagine anything is going to change that. 

But what I do wonder is if his contract demands have caused some sort of sea change to take place among the fan base. After all, saints don't generally take hostages, and I think there's some feeling that's what Albert has done with the Cardinals. Sure, there are still rallies and websites dedicated to keeping Albert in St. Louis, but I'm starting to hear some real push back on the other side for the first time. 

A slow start for Albert wouldn't ordinarily be anything anyone would worry about, and I still don't think it portends much long-term. But in the current climate, of Pujols seemingly holding the Cards over a barrel for every possible dollar (whether or not that perception is actually accurate), every single one of Albert's perceived flaws is going to be magnified in people's minds. Every time he hits a grounder to the shortstop and just trots down to first, there are going to be those who see that as proof he has a sense of entitlement, that he doesn't have to work for that huge contract he's demanding. 

And what I wonder about most of all is whether or not Albert will notice. He's never before had to deal with being a villain, at least not to his home crowd. Other teams' fans hate him, of course, but that's only natural. Cardinal fans have loved him almost unconditionally up until now, but I wonder if that will remain true if he continues on toward free agency. 

For the decade-plus Albert has played here in St. Louis, he's been an object of admiration, almost worship. He's pious and respectable and talented, untouched by scandal and poor performance alike. But I wonder if 'greedy' is starting to creep into the minds of fans. Hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned, and at the very least Albert hasn't exactly gone out of his way to remain a Cardinal for life. (I'm not saying he should. I'm only saying plenty of people will feel like he should.) It's going to be interesting, at least to me, to see if the grumblings I've noticed so far this season are, in fact, just fringe grumbling and grousing, or if it's representative of something deeper that has changed in Albert Pujols's relationship with the city of St. Louis. 

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