Note: I wrote this column when I was down in Florida last week. I recognize the criticism that will follow (it already has), but I ask fans to stop always blindly defending the behavior of athletes, merely because they’re athletes. I’m not saying Albert Pujols is Satan, or even Satan Jr. He may well be America’s nicest man. But I’ve watched him in spring training for several years now, and it always infuriates me. I know athletes are bombarded by fans; that they can’t sign everything; that memorabilia peddlers take the fun out. Bottom line: You have the chance to truly touch people.
Or not to.
When I was a kid, my dad told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Jeff, you can judge people by how they treat you, or you can judge them by how they treat others. It’s easy to praise someone for being nice to you when they need to be. But do they talk to the waiter? The bellhop? Are they friendly to people for no other reason than it’s righteous?”
I agree 100%.
The line stretches halfway around Roger Dean Stadium here in Jupiter, Florida, an elastic red-and-white snake of hope and dreams and nostalgia and, well, more than a smidge of anger.
The 617 people are, technically, here for St. Louis Cardinals Autograph Day.
The 617 people are, factually, here for Albert Pujols.
Do not take the last sentence to mean that they, the Redbird fans gathered at the team’s spring training facility this past Saturday, love Albert Pujols. Oh, they love the way he plays. The Ruthian home runs deep into the stands. The doubles laced into the gaps. The intensity with which he runs the bases; the steeliness he brings to the plate in a clutch situation.
Genuine love, however, is more than mere admiration. Genuine love, especially in sports, means forming a bond; a relationship; a connection. St. Louis fans love Stan Musial because, for 70 years, he has been loving them back. The same passion can be applied to Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith and even Mark McGwire. They are St. Louis icons not merely for their talents, but for their dispositions.
In this department, Albert Pujols falls far short.
Because we in the sports media tend to make certain allowances for superstars, Pujols has been repeatedly praised for his soft heart and charitable deeds. If one were to audaciously suggest that Pujols leans toward unfriendly and rude, he would inevitably be reminded that the St. Louis slugger is heavily involved in his own charitable foundation, which does great work in areas related to Down syndrome. And that the St. Louis slugger is very religious. And that the St. Louis slugger is charitable and religious. Really, his charity is amazing! And he’s religious! Very religious! So, so, so religious. Loves God! Really!*
Which would all be swell and dandy were Pujols not, ahem, treating Cardinals fans like garbage. Which he does.
To watch Pujols interact with the St. Louis diehards is to watch a prototypical spoiled, arrogant 21st century sports star at his absolute worst. During spring training, it is common for players to wave or smile or nod or (gasp!) talk to fans as they trot from one field to the next during otherwise monotonous drill sessions. Lance Berkman is the king of this practice. Gerald Laird isn’t far behind. Pujols, on the other hand, does nothing. When people call his name, he almost never gazes up. When people ask for an autograph, he doesn’t even bother with a “Not now” or “Try me later.” Instead, he resorts to tactics men like Barry Bonds and Albert Belle perfected in the recent decades—the steel-faced, Why-are-you-even-talking-to-me? ignore-the-world two-step.
It’s not that Pujols doesn’t say much—neither does Derek Jeter. It’s not that Pujols is intense—Josh Hamilton is certainly right there with him. No, what rubs an increasing number of people wrongly is his galling frostiness. Or, as one longtime Cardinals usher said to me the other day, “How about looking up at people when they talk to you? How about acknowledging that they exist?”
Said another: “He’s probably a nice man. But he never shows it.”
Pujols’ supporters (and there are many) will cry blasphemy; will cite the myriad pressures of being a superstar jock; will evoke the foundation and the spirituality and 42 home runs and 118 RBIs from 2010. And, to a certain degree, they’ll have a case. But as I comb through the 617 people waiting to enter Roger Dean—many of who slept out through the night to be assured their seven seconds with Pujols—I am struck by the oddness of it all. Save for the handful of professional memorabilia collectors (who really do ruin these things for everyone), the people here simply want to be touched by Albert Pujols; to see that, come day’s end, he’s a wonderful man.
And yet …
• “We want Albert to be a Cardinal for life, and he’s an amazing player,” says Jan, a Belleville, Illinois native who slept outside the stadium. “I understand that it’s hard signing every autograph. I get that. But he doesn’t seem to sign any.”
• “I want to love Albert,” says Deron, a Shiloh, Illinois native who also slept out. “But he makes it hard sometimes.”
• “I don’t understand Albert, because the fans would give anything to like and support him,” says Chris, an engineer and lifelong Cardinals fan. “But he doesn’t sign autographs, and when he does sign he makes it illegible slop and he’s never polite.”
Now, however, on Autograph Day, Pujols must sign. The Cardinals have told their players that they are required to wear their jerseys, sit and accept items for one full hour. Hence, the 617.
Pujols is placed at the end of a white table, alongside pitcher Adam Reifer. When the fans are finally herded into Roger Dean, roughly 75 percent head straight to Pujols’ line.
Here is a direct, play-by-play transcript from the opening minutes:
Fan: “Albert, great to meet you! You’re my favorite player in the world!”
Pujols (not looking up): “Thanks.”
Fan 2: “Albert, do you sign jerseys?”
Pujols: (not looking up): “No.”
Fan 2: “Helmets?”
Pujols (not looking up): “No.”
Fan 3: “Good luck this year, Albert. You deserve everything you get.”
Pujols (not looking up): “Uh-huh. Thanks.”
Fan 4: “Albert, my daughter loves you.”
Pujols (not looking up): No response.
Pujols does not look up—ever. He does not show emotion—ever. The fan can be a grandmother; the fan can be a 6-year-old boy. It matters not. Like 98 percent of his teammates, he’d rather be shaving wild emus than sitting here. The rest of the Cardinals, however, attempt to hide it. For a full hour, Pujols doesn’t. Because of his endorsement deal with Upper Deck, he signs only pictures and baseballs (every other player signs whatever’s presented to him). He rarely smiles, concealing any emotions (and his face) behind a pair of sunglasses.
Within the Cardinals’ organization, this has been a well-kept secret for years—that the Albert Pujols everyone wants to love isn’t all that loveable. Many familiar with Pujols aren’t surprised by his rumored contract demands—the 10 years, the $30 million annually—because the numbers meet the ego.
Yet now, with free agency approaching, the real Albert Pujols might have to step up. Thirty million dollar ballplayers can’t just be ballplayers. They can’t just talk foundations and God. They have to be ambassadors. They have to be representatives. They have to smile and greet and symbolize and acknowledge that what fans want most isn’t aloofness, but access.
They have to look up.
* PS: Fact: We in the sports media far too often judge an athlete’s goodness based on his charitable foundation. I’d say 50 percent of top-tier athletes have some sort of foundation, and while I don’t doubt Pujols’ intentions in this area, it’s not the best manner (in my opinion) for judging a person.
And I don’t want to hear that he’s shy. Or bashful. He’s not. And, in my book, there’s never an excuse to treat people this way. Ever.