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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jorge Posada, Albert Pujols and The Weight of Past Glory

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 10:55 AM

click to enlarge Posada in 2007. - COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
  • Posada in 2007.
If you're even a casual sports fan and aren't living under a very large rock, you may have heard there was some hullabaloo over the weekend involving the New York Yankees' veteran catcher, Jorge Posada

It seems that, after seeing his name penciled in the lineup in the number nine spot, Posada went to manager Joe Girardi and asked out of the game, citing a need to "get his head straight." When media inquiries came, there was also talk of a balky back.

There were some conflicting stories coming from Yankee officials, though, and finally Posada came clean. He had begged out of the game because he didn't want to hit ninth. He told Girardi he would rather go elsewhere than hit ninth. He wasn't happy with being the designated hitter instead of catching. And so on, and so on. 

Posada is far from the first great player in decline to struggle with the adjustment to a reduced role and make a stink about it, nor will he be the last. The same hyperconfidence -- some might prefer arrogance -- that makes great athletes great also makes it nearly impossible for them to age gracefully. 

But why, you ask, am I talking about Jorge Posada in a St. Louis sports column? Because there's a bigger narrative at work here, one that should matter to us specifically. And I'll tell you what it is. 

In the end, this incident will not likely leave even a smudge on Posada's legacy. He is, after all, one of the greatest Yankees of the past fifteen years, one of the more prosperous eras in the history of baseball's most storied team. I'm sure people will remember his playoff heroics in 2003 more than his hissy fit about being relegated to the bottom of the lineup in his last season with the Yankees. (And it will be his last season; Posada is a free agent after this year and will almost certainly retire.)

But one player's legacy isn't what this is all about. 

What this is really about is how to honor the players who have done so much for your franchise, while still doing what is best for the team. The Yankees signed Posada to a deal before the 2008 season worth $52 million that they had to know would include his decline years. Yet they did it anyway, both for the player he was then and -- maybe more importantly -- the player he had been the previous decade for them. 

You see where I'm going with this yet? 

The Yankees could afford to pay Posada for his past. They are, after all, the Yankees, and they can afford to paper over most mistakes. There are lots of other teams who can't afford that same luxury. Teams like, oh, say, the Cardinals

The Cardinals have one of the most important decisions in franchise history coming up this offseason, in the form of one Albert Pujols. Pujols will be a free agent, and by most accounts looking to cash in on his superhuman on-field exploits over the past decade. Whether to sign him to a mega-contract, easily the largest in franchise history, will shape the direction the club takes for the next seven to ten years. (And no, I didn't consciously phrase that like a prison term. It just happened that way.) 

And this is where that larger narrative Posada brought up comes in. Albert Pujols had, by his own lofty standards, a down season in 2010. So far in 2011, he's having the worst season of his career. He's 31 years old. And after this season is complete, he will be looking to sign a deal for the better part of the next decade. 

Things aren't nearly as cut-and-dried with Albert as they are Posada, of course. Posada is clearly at the end of his day; Pujols is not anywhere near the end of his. Posada is currently sporting a .626 OPS; Albert, even in his completely un-Albertian quagmire, is OPSing .757, which is still better than league average. The two players are not in the same place. But then again, the stakes aren't nearly as high with Posada, either. What is the same is the balancing act. 

When Albert Pujols signs his next contract, wherever that may be, he'll be getting paid for the ten years of .300/30/100 he's put up to begin his career. (That's average, home runs, and RBI, for those of you keeping score at home.) He's been a remarkable performer, consistent in a way no other player has ever been in the history of the game. But the next decade of Albert's career will almost certainly be worse than the one just completed. At the very least, a seven- or eight-year deal will include his age 35-38 seasons, which is just about the time even the very best players take a permanent nosedive. 

So what is a franchise to do? When they offer Albert a contract they feel works for the organization, the fanbase accuses them of lowballing the greatest player in team history. Look at all Pujols has done for this team, they cry. He's been the centerpiece of a brilliant run of Cardinal baseball. And they're right. 

Then again, the organization has to do what's best for the team, not Albert. I'm sure we all remember what it was like in the late '90s, when Mark McGwire was doing historic things in a Cardinal jersey. Was it exciting watching him sock dingers like no one ever had before? Absolutely. Unfortunately, he did it as part of some decidedly mediocre teams, and I can't imagine any of you out there enjoy watching a losing team any more than I do. There's no guarantee Albert's next ten years will play out like that, of course, but there's certainly a non-zero chance if he's eating up a quarter of the team's payroll. 

On one level, Jorge Posada throwing a tantrum over his declining skills and his declining role doesn't seem to have much in common with Albert Pujols' impending contract negotiations. On another level, though, the two have everything in common, as two players and two franchises try to find that balance between rewarding for the past and facing the facts of the now. The Cardinals could easily sign Albert to an enormous contract and assure he will retire wearing the Birds on the Bat. But at what price? And would it be worth it? Pujols has been a huge part of the Cards' winning ways since he came into the league. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know if that will continue to be true. 

So how do you show respect for what a player has done for the franchise while doing what's best for the team? How do you balance a guy's past greatness and current reality? Whatever the answer is, the Cardinals are going to be faced with it shortly. And one way or the other, for the future of the organization, they had better hope they get it right. 

The Yankees could afford to make their Posada mistake and pay for the history he's been a part of. I'm not sure the Cardinals can afford to do the same. 

And finally, just in case you weren't already feeling depressed enough by this rumination on letting go of past glory (and possible accompanying death anxiety), here's the Postal Service covering my favourite Flaming Lips song over a rather sad looking Mario. Don't ask why. It just fits. 

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