It became obvious early this season -- maybe as early as spring training -- that three words needed to be included in any discussion of Albert Pujols. They would be spoken in italics, beginning emphatically before climbing to the heights of disbelief.
Eight more years?
My eight-more-years? moment came in late April, with the Angels in Oakland to play the A's. Pujols was playing first base, and someone hit a popup barely to the dugout side of the coaching box.
Albert tried -- he tried so hard it hurt to watch -- but the ball landed an arm's length beyond his reach. He needed six steps, maybe. He could manage only five.
This is the second year of Pujols' 10-year, $242 million contract, which means eight more years? doesn't technically kick in until November. He is on the disabled list with a partially torn plantar fascia and might be forced to stay there the rest of the season, even though he hopes otherwise. His immobility traveled the distance from painful to sad. He became the old man in the softball game, going base to base and hobbling as he did. He was still hitting the ball hard, which is why he grounded into 18 double plays.
It's been a remarkable turn. Eighteen months ago, Pujols was the center of the baseball universe, the world's most coveted free agent. Today, he's on the verge of becoming an afterthought, a broken-down player on a bad team.
Naturally, because we have an infatuation with assessing the spending habits of baseball owners, Pujols' struggles have morphed into an ongoing discussion of the worst contract in the history of baseball.
Is it Albert's, or the one belonging to Alex Rodriguez that Bud Selig is so gymnastically attempting to shorten or even revoke?
It's one or the other, apparently, with no room for anyone else.
Or anything else, including a clear-eyed, reasonable look at the value of a contract.
Rodriguez's contract -- he's owed $100 million before any suspension deduction kicks in -- is a juicy subplot to the discussion of his imminent period of forced inactivity. The Yankees want to be rid of it, and him, and if your mind naturally bends toward the conspiratorial, you could find reason to believe MLB and the Yankees are angling to make that happen with a lifetime ban. Buck Showalter, for one, believes the earth's delicate balance is at stake, not to mention the future of all of his young stars.
But right now Pujols is being held up as the newest and freshest example of why owners and general managers should never consider long-term, big-money contracts for players in their 30s. Between Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Angels find themselves in a financial fix that will serve as a cautionary tale through 2017 and beyond.
And there will be hell to pay. The next 31-year-old superstar up for free agency is going to pay the price for coming after Albert. He -- let's call him Robinson Cano, just for fun -- is going to have to work harder for his money in this new era of enlightened austerity.
The industry doesn't forget, right?
Of course it does. It always does. The owners did it even after cautionary-tale Barry Zito proved you shouldn't give seven years to a starting pitcher nearing his 30s, and the Angels did it with Pujols even after cautionary-tale Alex Rodriguez proved a 10-year contract doesn't make sense for anybody, and that was before Rodriguez faced the Biogenesis reaper.
All of which means we probably need to stop caring how other people spend their money. (Sure, fans help to pay the salaries and should have a voice in the process, but nobody takes that argument seriously when ancillary income streams mean teams such as the Marlins can make money while playing in an empty building.) Or, employing a strategy that figures to be far less fun, maybe we need to start taking a different approach to the worst-contract discussion.
There's a chance the parameters of the discussion are misaligned. The prevailing question -- who's producing the least while getting paid the most for the longest? -- might be irrelevant.
Here's one reason: The Angels have a 20-year, $3 billion local television contract that coincidentally started the same year as Pujols' contract. That's $150 million a year, far more than the team's current overall payroll of $128 million. It's $100 million a year more than local TV was paying before Angels owner Arte Moreno signed Pujols and C.J. Wilson.
The Angels make $150 million before any of the 3 million or so fans buys a ticket, pays for parking or orders a $12.75 Fat Tire.
That television contract wouldn't have happened if Moreno hadn't established himself as a cocksure billionaire willing to spend money to keep his team in the forefront of the Southern California baseball discussion. The tissue connecting the Pujols signing to $3 billion worth of television money is clear and direct. You can argue with the results -- it's hard to decide whether the '13 Angels are a disappointment or an embarrassment -- but it's not as easy to argue the finances.
Set aside for a moment the question of whether Pujols deserves $242 million. (General rule: Someone is willing to give it to him, therefore he deserves it.) The prevailing notion -- the Angels are stuck with him through 2021 -- might prove to be rash and misleading, one more example of how differently fans and business owners see the world of sports.
Eight more years? It just might pencil out in the end.