Mr. Big

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St. Louis has the best and most-loyal fans in baseball. When the Cardinals are home, practically every seat in Busch Stadium is occupied, and nearly all are wearing red.

In other big-league cities, the fans boo when their team isn’t playing well. In St. Louis, even when their beloved Red Birds are struggling, they still support them.

Second only to the New York Yankees, the Cardinals have 10 World Series banners, and own a long and glorious tradition dating back to the 1920’s and early 1930’s when the “Gas House Gang” ruled the National League.

Dozens of Hall of Famers have donned the St. Louis uniform such as Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Steve Carlton, Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter, Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock.

Most consider outfielder Stan Musial the greatest Cardinals’ player, with current first baseman Albert Pujols second by virtue of his other-worldly offensive numbers.

This could end after 2011 when Pujols’s contract expires and he opts to become a free agent.

The nine-time All-Star and three-time Most Valuable Player asked the Cardinals’ front office for a record-setting $300 million deal over 10 years.

Pujols set a deadline in which he’d negotiate, but it’s since past. Now it’s come down to how badly management wants to retain the best player in baseball?

Pujols turned 31 years old in January, and if history is any indicator, his numbers will suffer some with age. There have been a few exceptions like outfielder Barry Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens, but they’ve been under intense scrutiny of having used performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids and human growth hormones.

We don’t know for sure, but it seems Pujols has been clean. His physique (230 pounds on a 6-foot, 3-inch frame) along with incredible talent have driven him to undreamed of heights.

In 10 full seasons, Pujols has smashed 40 or more homers six times, driven in 100 runs or better each year, and has a slugging percentage of .624, and an on-base percentage of .426.

Pujols has cobbled together numbers that rival and even surpass some of the best right-handed hitters like Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt.

The case for Pujols as the finest power hitter can still be made even if Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, all left-handed swatters, are included. We’re dealing with a player for the ages.

Going by numbers alone, which can be skewed given they’re set in different eras against different pitchers, it would still be hard to argue against Pujols, who has belted 408 home runs, driven in 1,230 runs, with a .331 batting average.

Sluggers usually swing from their heels and hope to drive the ball, which translates into striking out. But Pujols has amazingly walked (914) more than he has fanned (646).

Best in tight situations, Pujols helped the Cardinals reach the World Series in 2004 and 2006, with the latter being a win, and pushed St. Louis to a dozen playoff series.

During this span, Pujols, a six-time Silver Slugger Award winner and Rookie of the Year, has batted .322 with a .431 on-base percentage, a .578 slugging percentage, and driven in 36 runs with 13 homers.

Even if there is a dip in production, it would be sad to see Pujols in another uniform. If ever a player should remain with the club that drafted him, it would be Prince Albert.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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