JUPITER, Fla. — Albert Pujols drove his big, black pickup truck into the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training camp Thursday morning and pulled into a parking spot reserved for owners.
No one complained.
Deal or no deal, Pujols and the Cardinals are still happy together. For now, anyway.
The three-time MVP arrived for his first formal workout of the 2011 season, which the Cardinals desperately hope will not be his last in St. Louis. He showed up one day after he and the team failed to reach an agreement on a new contract by a deadline Pujols imposed, and insisted that wasn’t going to bother him this season.
“I’m more locked in than ever,” Pujols said.
Music to the Cardinals’ ears, right there.
Pujols’ truck came through the gate at 7:35 a.m. He half-seriously asked for some help when one large box filled with bats fell out of the driver’s-side back door of his tricked-out truck, then loaded his arms with his gear and made the short walk inside. The notion that he would be extra-motivated to perform in a contract year was shrugged off by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
“You won’t be able to see any difference in the way he practices and plays,” La Russa said. “He knows, he’s had to produce. He’s had the same pressure. You won’t see any difference. He’s amazing.”
If the Cardinals would gladly accept an average season from anyone right now, it’s Pujols.
A nine-time All-Star, Pujols is the only player in major league history to hit 30 or more home runs each of his first 10 seasons — all with the Cardinals, the franchise he’s often said he wants to remain with for the rest of his career, a stance he reiterated Thursday.
Pujols has a .331 career batting average and averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs. He’s also won six Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves. Last year he batted .312 with 42 homers and 118 RBIs and finished second in the MVP balloting.
The Cardinals declined Wednesday to reveal their offer, though it was believed to be somewhere around $200 million for eight years, possibly with an opportunity for Pujols to obtain an ownership stake in the franchise once his playing days are complete.
Pujols laughed off the speculation.
“You guys don’t have any clue,” Pujols said. “You guys are way off on the numbers that you are throwing out there.”
He did, however, make reference in a 25-minute interview session with reporters to perhaps getting a deal done in a few months and then talking about “what’s going to happen in the seven or eight years from there.”
Around baseball, some say that whatever Pujols says he’s worth, he’s worth.
“The way some of the guys are getting paid, if anybody’s worth the money, it’s Albert,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said Thursday. “Wouldn’t you agree? If there’s one person in baseball that you’d say well, who should be one of the highest-paid guys, the top three in baseball, you’ve got to mention Albert.”
Pujols will not reopen talks with the Cardinals until after the season. He can become a free agent after the World Series.
He said he would not negotiate publicly, nor discuss any part of what either side brought to the bargaining table, saying he saw how that can backfire earlier this year when talks between Derek Jeter — like Pujols, someone who has iconic status with his franchise — and the Yankees became public and a bit contentious.
“You have to put a deadline … because you don’t want to bring distractions to the ballclub,” Pujols said, then made one of what became several requests to reporters to not ask his teammates to speculate about what may loom in the future.
La Russa said in recent days that he believes Pujols and agent Dan Lozano were getting pressure to “set the bar” on the new deal from the players’ association, a stance the union denied.
Pujols said neither he nor Lozano had been pressured by anyone, and said only five people knew the details of the talks: Him, his wife, Lozano, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and Cardinals chairman William DeWitt Jr.
When — and if — talks resume, it’s unclear if St. Louis will increase its offer to Pujols’ liking.
“It’s their money. It’s Mr. DeWitt’s decision,” Pujols said.
Pujols will make $16 million this season in his contract’s final year, with $4 million of the money deferred with no interest.
The Cardinals will have a payroll of between $100 million and $110 million this season, and say they can’t go into the huge-money ranges like some of baseball’s biggest spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox — two clubs that would figure to have interest in Pujols once he hits the free agent market. Others are already getting mentioned, like the Rangers, Cubs and Angels.
“What do I want? Hey, I want to be a Cardinal forever,” Pujols said. “That’s my goal.”
AP Baseball Writer Joe Kay in Goodyear, Ariz., contributed to this report.