Cardinals can't let Albert Pujols fly

ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire remembers the conversation as if it were yesterday, not 10 long seasons ago.

St. Louis Cardinals spring training … 2001 … McGwire, playing in what would be his final year in the big leagues, and manager Tony La Russa are discussing a rookie third baseman on the roster bubble.

McGwire tells La Russa, "If you don't put this guy on the roster for the 2001 season, it might be one of the worst moves you make in your career.''

The guy was Albert Pujols.

Pujols made the roster, as well as the Opening Day lineup against the Colorado Rockies. In left field. Batting sixth.

That was April 2, 2001 -- or 1,765 times ago that La Russa wrote Pujols' name on a Cardinals lineup card. Could Friday night's Game 5 of the National League Division Series be the last?

Depending on what happens in Philadelphia against the Phillies, Wednesday evening's 5-3 victory at Busch Stadium might have been Pujols' final home appearance in a Cardinals uniform. And if the Cards lose the deciding Game 5, it might be the end of the Pujols era in St. Louis.

"I don't think about that,'' said Pujols after the Cardinals extended the series. "This is no time for me to talk about if this is going to be my last game.''

But Cardinals fans and ownership think about it. A lot.

Unless owner Bill DeWitt Jr. opens his wallet as wide as St. Louis' Gateway Arch, Pujols almost certainly will become a free agent in November. It is a China Syndrome scenario for those who adore the Cardinals. Busch Stadium without Pujols is like St. Louis without Budweiser.

It can't be a coincidence that the stadium pregame video montage opened with an image of the franchise's icon, Stan "The Man'' Musial, followed immediately by footage of Pujols. Pujols is this Cardinals generation's Musial.

McGwire, now the Cards' hitting coach, said Pujols has grinded through a season that included a broken wrist, a sprained ankle, leg and foot injuries. And despite those injuries and the weight of looming free agency, Pujols still hit 37 home runs, drove in 99 runs and batted .299.

"He lived up to his word this year,'' said McGwire. "He said, 'We'll deal with the negotiations after the season,' and that's what he's done. That's something you really have to commend him for.''

You couldn't swing a scorecard Wednesday evening without hitting somebody wearing Pujols' No. 5. In the six rows just below the Busch Stadium press box, I counted nine Pujols jerseys.

The fans knew this could be the last time they saw Pujols in person as a Cardinal. Maybe that's why they cheered nearly everything he did.

"It's been 11 years,'' said Pujols. "This is not just one year. It's been 11 years. A lot of great moments. A lot of bad moments. Frustrating moments in my career. Those are the moments you take with you. So hopefully, we end up winning and come back here in the second round. Pretty much just give to these fans what they deserve, and that's a championship.''

Pujols patted Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz on the back as he stepped into the box for his first at-bat. The Busch Stadium regulars know the routine by heart: a single tap of the bat on the plate … right elbow held high … bat in collision position.

He took the O-fer, not that it mattered. Pujols popped to third, struck out, flied to right field and lined out to right -- and yet still made the play of the game.

There isn't a place in the box score for DYST (Did You See That?) entries. But in the top of the sixth inning, with the Cardinals clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Phillies' Chase Utley reached base on a walk. Then Hunter Pence hit a chopper to short. Rafael Furcal threw to Pujols at first for the easy out.

Except that Pujols stepped off the bag -- on purpose! -- and nailed Utley as he slid into third. It was a brilliant, instinctive play by Pujols, who prevented the Phillies from having a runner just 90 feet from home with just one out. In the Cardinals' dugout, La Russa couldn't help himself. He applauded.

The [Cardinals] have to sign him. They have to get something done. If not, it will be a crushing blow … He's the face of the Cardinals, that's the bottom line.'

-- Former teammate Fernando Vina

Meanwhile, in the Cardinals' bullpen, the relievers looked on in disbelief.

"It was a huge play, man,'' said Jason Motte, who later earned the save. "That was awesome.''

It was a cool moment in a Pujols career full of them. He has always played older, smarter and wiser than almost all of his peers.
But the question remains: Will he be a Cardinal in 2012?

If St. Louis loses Friday, Pujols officially completes his seven-year, $100 million contract. His new deal could make his old deal look like pocket change.

"That's one of the unfortunate things about where the game is today,'' said Buddy Bell in a phone interview from Phoenix. Bell was the Rockies' manager when Pujols made his major league debut. "[The New York Yankees' Derek] Jeter may be the last guy with at least that many years playing on the same team. I just hope he's able to play in a Cardinals uniform his whole career … I wish I could go back and play my career for one team.''

Bell, now the Chicago White Sox farm director, had never seen Pujols until that day at Coors Field. And if not for a late spring training injury to Bobby Bonilla, Pujols might have started the season in the minors, not the Cards' starting lineup.

"I do remember going over their lineup before the game and asking somebody, 'Who's this Pujols kid?'" said Bell, whose scouting reports five days earlier didn't include the Cardinals rookie. "We were scrambling to try to find out a little bit about this kid. All the reports we ended up getting said this kid is really going to be a helluva player.''

Pujols got his first career hit against the Rockies -- and 2,072 more regular-season hits since then. He has slugged 445 home runs and built a .328 batting average. If he stays a Cardinal, he'll one day get his own statue, just like Stan the Man. Even if he leaves, he should get one.

"I was the leadoff hitter,'' said former Pujols teammate Fernando Vina, from his home near Lake Tahoe. "I always watched him. We were all interested in seeing what he was all about. And I'm not saying this right now -- I said it from the beginning: He was special. There are certain guys who come around every 20 years, every X number of years. He was just a different type.''

Who knows where Pujols, 31, will be a spring training from now. He began his career with the Cardinals and, if DeWitt wants to spend the money -- lots of it -- he could end it with them too.

But if the Cardinals don't come up with the right salary number, there are other teams who can and will consider paying Pujols' price. (Chicago Cubs? Boston Red Sox? New York Yankees? Los Angeles Angels? Texas Rangers? Florida Marlins? Toronto Blue Jays?)

"They have to sign him,'' said Vina of Cardinals management. "They have to get something done. If not, it will be a crushing blow … He's the face of the Cardinals, that's the bottom line.''

The face. The heart. The soul.

How do you put a price tag on that? You don't. If you're DeWitt, you just gulp and pay the money. Because if you don't -- and McGwire said it best 10 years ago -- it might be one of the worst moves DeWitt makes in his career.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.