The last oldish baseball player to sign a vast and stunning free agent contract in Southern California was Kevin Brown before the 2000 season. Brown was 34 years old when the Dodgers inked him to a 7-year, $105 million deal full of gratuitous personal service clauses, like flights to see his family in Georgia on the team’s private jet. Brown pitched the better parts of 5 of those 7 seasons, battling through injuries and the widespread antipathy of Dodger fans, before finally, at age 38, getting himself traded to the Yankees for a package centered around Jeff Weaver.
Say this for Albert Pujols: No matter how badly things go for him over the next decade in Anaheim, he’ll likely never get traded for a Weaver; Jeff being long gone, and Jered, after all, his teammate. But things have been bad for Pujols. He waited until May to hit his first home run. He spatted publicly with Mickey Hatcher, and then his futility at the plate cost Hatcher his job. The fact that he’s only now beginning to flirt with the Mendoza Line presents an improvement over the first month of his season. Angels fans, and no doubt Pujols himself, must be aware that his production has fallen slightly every year since 2008. They see a decade of calendar pages ahead of them. What happens if things don’t get better?
Timing is everything. Pujols signed his massive deal with the eleventh-hour bridegroom Los Angeles Angels after a protracted negotiation with St. Louis. Now, his timing at the plate is all out-of-whack. He’s lunging at breaking balls and swinging through meatballs. And yet, nobody is truly afraid. Albert takes advantage of the grace period for adjustment and regresses in the general direction of his expectations. He finishes the year batting something like .268 with 23 home runs. The Angels don’t make the playoffs, but C.J. Wilson reaches 200,000 followers on Twitter.
Pujols bats .437 in April, .393 in May, and then .000 the rest of the season, after breaking his wrist more severely than in 2011, when he returned after just two weeks. Thankfully for the Angels, Kendrys Morales plays like players are supposed to play in walk years, Mike Trout lights up the American League, and C.J. Wilson pitches like Yu Darvish. The team makes a playoff run without him. Pujols’ leadership skills are much praised.
Pujols spends the entire offseason in conference with former manager Tony La Russa and pastor Rick Warren of Orange County’s Saddleback Church. The reflective trio takes long, pensive walks along the beach, discussing purpose-driven baseball, the Demise of the Old School, and how Albert can pack the force of a thousand eternities into each dinger for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, a jealous Mike Scioscia tiptoes behind them, peering over hedges and through tinted car windows, fearful of his power being usurped. And as Pujols reverts to his old self, batting .328 with 34 home runs, Scioscia devolves into an increasingly paranoid, reclusive figure, constantly devising excuses to bench Pujols, but never acting on them.
After years of decreasing offensive output, Major League Baseball legalizes all steroids, but Albert Pujols refuses to take them, saying from a podium in front of the plastic boulders in center field at Angel Stadium that the people of Orange County would never stand for anything so artificial. As a full-time designated hitter, Pujols hits like a 35-year-old might. He bats .296 with 29 home runs. More than one columnist refers to him as a “right-handed David Ortiz.”
During an interleague series in St. Louis in June, Pujols wanders the city in a disguise borrowed from Bobby Valentine. Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ plays in his head. The Gateway Arch looks less like an icon of Westward Expansion and more like the mouth of a giant sad face. For the first time since leaving Missouri, Pujols realizes what he left behind. Determined to be loved by Angels fans like he once was by Cardinals fans, Pujols redoubles his efforts at the plate, batting.352 in the second half. Nonetheless, the Angels finish a distant second in the AL West, as Seattle wins 119 games behind newly reinvented ace knuckleball pitcher Ichiro.
Over shrimp cocktails, Angels General Manager Jerry DiPoto remarks to his wife, “Geeze, ten years is a long time. It’s, like, a whole decade.” Pujols bats .259 with 23 home runs. He makes $26 million. Angels fans begin calling him Vernon Wells behind his back.
With his dominance receding further into the past, an increasingly desperate Pujols campaigns to reinstate the El Hombre nickname he swore off back in the heady days of 2012. He formally apologizes for his previous dissent at an Anaheim City Council meeting, but fails to garner a majority vote, and the nickname is applied instead to a 150-year-old sea turtle renowned for the spitting image of Tim Salmon emblazoned on its shell.
Pujols is unceremoniously traded to the Yankees for the fleshy remains of Michael Pineda’s elbow. Manager Derek Jeter plans to use him as a pinch hitter and occasional DH. More than one columnist refers to Pujols as a “right-handed Jason Giambi, but not New York Giambi… more like Colorado Giambi.”
The St. Louis Cardinals win their fourth consecutive World Series, defeating the Pujols-Yankees in seven games. After the game, Pujols bellows, “I’m STILL going to Disneyland!” to an empty Yankees locker room. He staggers down Main Street USA while shoveling Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars into his mouth from a burlap sack and falls into a catatonic state sitting on a park bench. Children find him there with vines growing up his leg. They climb on his still-massive shoulders and take photos beside him that they post onto whatever social media website replaces Facebook .
Pujols awakens from his stupor and takes up occupancy in the Tortuga Inn of ill repute in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There, he proclaims himself KING OF THE IMAGINEERS, and begins to order the animatronic pirates about. “Drink rum!” he tells the already-rum-swilling pirate-bot. “Drink for El Hombre!” Curious onlookers come to Disneyland in droves, just to catch a sight of the deranged, Kurtzian slugger.
The Pujols attraction is a boon. Flush with cash, Disney buys back the Angels, rallies the monkeys, and signs Garret Anderson to a 10-year contract worth $800 million. Pujols is welcomed back to throw out the first pitch of the 2022 season. He declines the offer, citing a responsibility to his robot army.