By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:31 PM
JUPITER, FLA. - At the precise moment when the negotiating window for Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals closed for the next nine months, a pair of minor league pitchers wrapped up a bullpen session under a blue sky, small groups of players staggered toward the team's clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium with equipment bags slung over their shoulders, and an argument about golf broke out at a lunch table where some minor leaguers sat munching chips.
In other words, nothing happened whatsoever. If you were expecting bomb-shelter sirens to sound at high noon Wednesday, or a black cloud to descend suddenly upon the Cardinals' complex - or, really, any other acknowledgment of the peril that at that moment was visited upon the franchise - you would have been disappointed.
Nor would there be any alarms sounded by the Cardinals' top brass, Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and General Manager John Mozeliak, who spoke calmly and confidently about the impasse half an hour after Pujols's self-imposed noon deadline had passed.
"It's disappointing, but it's not the end of the world," Mozeliak said. "There's still a lot of time."
But while it is technically true that more than 250 calendar days separate us from the opening of the free agent market - five days after the end of the World Series - it is also true that Pujols, universally regarded as the best player in the game, took a giant leap toward leaving St. Louis on Wednesday.
And you can also be sure that, whether or not anyone in Jupiter felt a spinal chill as the deadline passed, it was felt in St. Louis, where one of baseball's best fan bases must contemplate the possibility that the upcoming season at Busch Stadium will be the last to feature their iconic No. 5 - perhaps the most beloved Cardinal since Stan Musial.
By all accounts, the Cardinals and Pujols never even got close to a deal, and in fact were so far apart - with Pujols, 31, believed to be seeking a record-breaking deal of $300 million over 10 years, and the Cardinals making a shorter, less lucrative offer that would pay Pujols like a superstar, but not necessarily like an icon - that even in the days leading up to the deadline, there was virtually no substantive dialogue between the sides.
"We started the process early," DeWitt said, describing an offer the team made in early January, with only tweaks and "creative" enticements, such as a small ownership stake, in the subsequent weeks. "We had a good dialogue throughout. It wasn't that we ran out of time. We just weren't able to reach an agreement."
With the Cardinals' first full-squad spring workout not scheduled until the weekend, Pujols remained a no-show at camp on Wednesday, but he is expected to arrive on Thursday. In the meantime, his agent, Dan Lozano, issued a statement following the deadline's passing, saying, "[A] difference of opinion in determining Albert's value simply could not be resolved."
Now, unless Pujols changes his stance on cutting off talks until after the season, the three-time National League most valuable player will have his value determined by the open market - a reality that paints the Cardinals' stance as a calculated gamble that Pujols won't achieve his asking price on that market and will come back to them in the end, on their terms.
The faith behind that stance is presumably tied to the fact that many of the game's biggest spenders - the Yankees (Mark Teixeira), Red Sox (Adrian Gonzalez), Phillies (Ryan Howard), Tigers (Miguel Cabrera) and White Sox (Paul Konerko/Adam Dunn) - are locked into lengthy, expensive contracts with first basemen. But it may also ignore both the plethora of additional possibilities (the Cubs, Angels, Rangers, Dodgers and, yes, the Nationals), and the creative solutions the locked-in teams might deploy when faced with the possibility of acquiring the game's best player.
"It's a process we have no control over," DeWitt said. "If he chooses to go elsewhere, that's his decision. Players are mobile in this generation."
While both the Cardinals and Pujols are doing their best to look beyond his contract situation - Pujols is expected to impose a no-contract-questions policy on interviews beginning Thursday, and Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa already has fingered the players' association as the villain in this story, so as to absolve both the team and the player - the situation promises to be a season-long headache for all sides, even if they don't publicly acknowledge its existence.
As the NBA found out during the 2009-10 season, when the most talented player in the sport is in his "walk" year, that story line will dominate the entire season, and while Pujols isn't self-absorbed enough to copy LeBron James's "The Decision" extravaganza at the end of the process, 2011 is setting up as the Year of Albert in baseball.