Albert Pujols deal: Sign of MLB strength

As Albert Pujols was making his way to Anaheim last week, Chris Paul was canceling his plans to be in Los Angeles, courtesy of David Stern, the spiraling-out-of-control NBA commissioner who vetoed a trade of the New Orleans Hornets star to the Lakers.

The NBA lockout might be officially over, but its conflicts haven't cooled and the league universe hasn't coalesced into a future of managed, accepted compromise.

And so the Year of Labor is reaching its conclusion with an exclamation point. Through his heavy-handed machinations, Stern is tacitly acknowledging that his league is not strong enough to survive without continuing to try to curb the freedoms and break the will of its players. Meanwhile, in something of an upset, baseball is proving once more that it is still the best, most democratic sport in the country -- simply by realizing there is no reason to continue a fight both sides have already won.

History has proved that baseball gets it right, after all. The sport doesn't have a salary cap, yet over the past 12 seasons, nine different teams have won the World Series, the only repeat champions being the Yankees in 2000 and '09, the Red Sox in 2004 and '07, and the Cardinals in 2006 and (try not to cringe, Rangers fans) '11. Even the Milwaukee Brewers have made the playoffs twice in the past four years.

Baseball's players have the best union, the most protections, the greatest potential for long-term guaranteed money and the most opportunity to choose where they want to play, while baseball's teams have six full seasons to control their best players.

The money is huge -- for the second time in a decade, a team has crossed the $200 million mark for a player contract -- and the superpowers in New York and Boston are always formidable, helped even more now by the probability that an additional team will be added to the playoffs. Yes, the gaps in the payrolls between the richest and poorest are stark. But it is (and always has been) a fallacy that a $200 million payroll automatically creates a baseball team demonstrably better than one at $100 million or $120 million, just as it is a fallacy that the 10-year, $250 million contract for Albert Pujols makes the Angels any more favorites to win the World Series than the two-time defending AL pennant-winning Rangers.

In the early 1900s, Ty Cobb lamented that players no longer played for the love of the game and only for the money. During the 1960s, Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Mays both campaigned against Curt Flood, siding with the owners against free agency. In 1971, Henry Aaron signed the richest contract in baseball history at the time -- three years, $200,000 -- and said that free agency would "destroy" baseball, that baseball "needed" the reserve clause that kept players from changing franchises without first being dumped by their team.

Starting in 1972 and ending in 1995, baseball underwent eight work stoppages. No one could imagine what has happened: The sport is financially healthy, led by the sort of superpower franchises that men like Stern seem to be futilely trying to discourage in other sports.

Instead of continuing to blame the players for an inherently flawed system, baseball seems to have learned to live with its inequities, and, rightfully, with less sentimentality. The Kansas City Royals haven't made the playoffs since 1985, but they aren't to be pitied (Kansas City's David Glass has owned the Royals for 13 years and has a net worth of more than a billion dollars) when the low-rent Rays have been to the playoffs in three of the last four years and won an American League pennant. Or when the Marlins have won two titles and, of all things, have a new stadium opening in just a few months. The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't been .500 since Barry Bonds left town in 1992 but: (1) players who leave the Pirates seem to wind up in the postseason regularly; and (2) Bonds might have actually stayed had the team not ganged up on him in arbitration after each MVP-winning season and paid him what he was worth.

The critical difference between today's MLB and today's NBA is that baseball is no longer repeating the lie that that player movement and big contracts have weakened the sport. During each labor negotiation, the commissioner and owners have stopped saying they are collectively losing money -- a hard case to make in the age of huge television deals; team-owned local networks; the money machine that is MLB Advanced Media; and valuations of the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers nearing or cresting $1 billion, all on top of an era of stadium building unseen in 100 years.

Instead, baseball has told a more honest, nuanced truth: The sport has problem areas in Oakland and St. Petersburg, financial issues in Queens and ownership issues at Chavez Ravine but overall is in good health. "More people, the networks, advertisers, investors," Bud Selig said during the stirring Rangers-Cardinals World Series, "want to get into baseball now more than ever."

Even the lamentations over the Pujols exit from St. Louis were muted, another indication that the sport is comfortable with itself and the notion that freedom -- job, religious, political or otherwise -- is actually the American way. Outside of Busch Stadium, a statue of Stan Musial dwarfs monuments to the other great Cardinals: Brock, Gibson, Schoendienst. Pujols would've been in the same group; there was a statue waiting for him had he remained in St. Louis. He most likely will be sculpted in bronze one day, anyway, for he is, Musial included, arguably the greatest player ever to wear the uniform. Even after his departure for California, it's difficult to call someone who played 11 seasons with one team disloyal.

In Pujols' case, the system worked the way it is designed to work. The Cardinals received the first six years of his service exclusively, and enjoyed another five seasons with him on top of that, helping them to two championships. Now, he chooses to begin a new chapter of his life. He'll be fine, and so, too, will the Cardinals -- who, along with the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, are among the four most historically important franchises in the sport.

Meanwhile, Stern is sinking in quicksand of his own making, allowing a small-market faction to undermine the game. The NBA has excitement in the nation's three biggest media markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago); a lucrative power featuring the game's signature player in Miami; and a first-time champion in Dallas, another huge market. The NBA has a marquee franchise in the Lakers and a venerable one in the Celtics; and in New York, the Knicks appear to be on the way back after years of losing and an embarrassing sexual harassment scandal centered around Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.

The NBA has all of these advantages, and Stern still shut down the sport.

Thus, the reaction to the two sports are fitting. Some 4,000 people came out to Anaheim to fete C.J. Wilson and Pujols, while NBA players and executives criticized Stern's panicked handling and dissolving of the Paul trade from a franchise (the Hornets) that is owned by the league. As the year draws to a close, baseball is celebrated, while Stern looks increasingly like an emperor wearing little more than a pair of underwear.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.