Loyalty and greed in sports embodies the thinnest of lines. In one hand "tradition" would tell us that, "the way it used to be", players stayed with their teams until it was done. And that was that. Nowadays, the loyalty lies as far as the dotted line. And if the numbers aren't right, or the situation isn't ideal, than it doesn't matter who took a chance on you when you were unknown. The time is now, and you only live once.
Or is it more important to honor your heirs?
The St. Louis Cardinals organization just lost their best player, perhaps even the best player in the history of Major League Baseball in first baseman Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols at age 31 is on pace to break just about every individual batting mark that is kept for record. In an era when most gaudy statistics can almost be directly tied with performance enhancing drugs, Pujols name has completely escaped that shadow. His value off the field has been documented to be just as valuable as it is on the field, with the various work with charitable organizations and dealing with his own personal plights at home.
But a player who was given an opportunity in the 13th round of the 1999 MLB draft, Pujols was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals. Two years later he established himself as one of the majors elite 1st basemen, playing an entire season averaging .329 batting, 37HR's, and 130RBI's. He would average above a .320BA, 30HR's and over 120RBI's every season after his 2001 debut. In 2006, Pujols and the Cardinals returned to the World Series for the first time since their 2004 disappointing sweep loss to the Boston Red Sox.
The Cardinals won that World Series and Pujols was a large part of that. Batting a low .200 on the head, he added 5 total runs (3 runs, 2RBI's) and was walked a team high 5 times. Just 5 years later, Pujols and the "Comeback Cardinals" made their way back to the World Series. This time around, Pujols accounted for 14 total runs (8 runs, 6RBI's) and was second on the team in walks (6) to Matt Holliday (7). Pujols 3 home runs came in a single 16-7 Game 3 slaughter of the Texas Rangers at the American League Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Tx. Pujols became only the third player in Major League history. Joining the company of Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson.
But not even two months after, Albert Pujols is gone. He is no longer with the team that drafted him in the 13th round. A team that to date, has paid the right hander from Santo Domingo, Distrito Nacional, D.R. over $104 million in 10yrs.
Albert Pujols awards while playing in St. Louis: according to Baseballreference.com
2001 NL Rookie of the Year
2003 NL Hank Aaron Award
2003 ML Major League Player of the Year
2004 NL NLCS MVP
2005 NL MVP
2008 ML Major League Player of the Year
2008 NL MVP
2008 NL Roberto Clemente Award
2009 ML Lou Gehrig Memorial Award
2009 ML Major League Player of the Year
2009 NL Hank Aaron Award
2009 NL MVP
Just days after the Cardinals won the World Series, manager and future Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa announced his retirement from coaching. This was said to undoubtedly affect Pujols decision to either stay or leave the franchise. It was also well documented that the Cardinals front office inability to make any headway in negotiations with Pujols, back almost two years prior to him becoming a free agent, was a clear sign he wouldn't be returning.
But what does this say about his loyalty.
Pujols has given what is undoubtedly Americas No. 1 baseball town the most production in the span of 10 years than anyone in the history of baseball, no matter the level. On the other hand, the city of St. Louis has fully embraced him giving him double digit millions in every year after 2005 and where on par with the 10yr/$250+mil offer Pujols bit on from the Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels.
But is on par enough? Pujols is undoubtedly the best player/1st basemen in baseball. So why not do what it takes to make sure he stays a Cardinal for life? Does the possibility of him leaving harming the team more than helping not outweigh any reason of the opposite? To any realist, 25o million dollars is too much to pay anyone that is short of bringing back the dead. But when fantasy numbers are status quo then you must talk about them like you are playing Monopoly.
The dog and pony show that the Cardinals showed for two years preceding his decision to go was all but disappointing from the outside looking in. This is by no means a berating of the Cardinals front office and staff, but I feel in 10 years this will be looked at as more a missed opportunity to keep, than a willingness to chase the money over loyalty.
But in sports where is the line between loyalty and greed?
In the age of free agency, by consensus, the public blames the players for greed when they leave teams for more lucrative offers in usually more favorable marketplaces. This has been well documented dating way back. I can remember at least in Chicago when Horace Grant went to the Orlando Magic after championship seasons with the Bulls. Boy, does he wish he had those years back.
But there really is no comparison to a player like Pujols. Dominant, a pioneer and game changer, an undoubted best in his profession and arguably in the history of their respective sports.
On the contrary, what happens when it all falls down? When the great player suffers great tragedy, is it the ownership's moral obligation to remain "loyal" to that player. Or should a franchise who throws a player to the wayside like trash be ridiculed and exposed for it's greed the same way that their very own players are.
And it extends beyond the diamond.
Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts situation couldn't more indicative of when the situation is spotlighted on the ownership rather than the player. For well over a decade, Peyton Manning has rewritten the history books and at the same time, brought the Indianapolis Colts from obscurity to NFL supremacy. No doubt already a first ballot Hall of Fame selection, Manning's likable personality, and cerebral approach to the game was both unique and trendsetting. As he became the most recognizable sports icon in a sport where because of helmets and marketability in a small Indianapolis market for football. And gave the city a NFL Super Bowl Championship trophy while at it.
Peyton's contributions to the city of Indianapolis extend far beyond the field of play. Manning and family teamed with the St. Vincent's Medical Center and purchased the Children's Hospital in Indianapolis and renamed it the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. His mark on the city and the culture of the Colts franchise is one of the most storied in sports history. To be blunt, for 13 seasons Peyton Manning was the Indianapolis Colts.
And now it is biting them where it hurts.
The Colts are looking to finished the season 2-14, only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and 5 seasons from winning the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears. And it all seems to stem directly from Peyton Manning not being on the field for the team. For better or worse the Colts allowed this behavior within the organization. When Tony Dungy was the head coach, Peyton Manning was the assistant coach. It breeded winning, it breeded a culture of success, but it did nothing for the continuity of leadership outside of the those two. So in Dungy's absence, new head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Jim Irsay never held a candle to Peyton Manning's say in the organizations direction all the way down to play-calling.
Now the Colts are looking at a win-less season, and the fingers are pointing to Manning to walk the plank. Is it fair for an organization to turn its back on a player who otherwise would be expected to fulfill his very own "loyalty" to the team, if he were facing an upcoming free agency? The rumors surfacing are that Bill Polian and the Colts organization are planning to trade Peyton Manning to a team in need of a quarterback. In efforts to make way for a "rebuilding" process with Andrew Luck, the presumed No. 1 overall pick which whom those same rumors assume that he would be able to "step right in" and command the very same offense in which Peyton Manning etched records.
Is this "loyalty" to a player that has brought an organization from 3rd fiddle to the Indy 500 and Reggie Miller's Indiana Pacers, to the lifeblood of Indianapolis? Would Lucas Oil Stadium be the home to the 2011 Super Bowl had Peyton Manning never been drafted to the Colts? Not to mention the media swirl that surrounded the event's, practically casting a shadow over the fact that Peyton's little brother Eli was playing.
Should we burn Bill Polian at the stake the same way Cardinals fans facebook post and tweet they would Albert Pujols? Or the same way Cleveland Cavaliers fans did when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat?
This is where the hypocrisy of loyalty in sports takes center course. The standards and double standards are within the thinnest of lines when it comes to the value of someone who gives and receives in grave amounts to the communities in which they were given opportunities. For Pujols, a Dominican with the aspirations of living the American dream, to Manning, living in his father Archie's shadow and looking to make a name all his own. Both players have reason's to be treated like the value they are to any organization.
So, a free agent is just that, free.
If owners are not obligated morally to honor a players service when they lose value, a player should not have the burden of obligation to be "loyal" to an organization that is proven unwilling to treat that player with more value than any other team in that circumstance. And for that I lay in sand the thin line that is between loyalty and hypocrisy in professional sports.