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Pujols saga represents rare misstep for iconic team player

JUPITER, Fla. -- One purpose of Albert Pujols' self-imposed deadline was allegedly to keep distractions to a minimum.

Instead, the early days of Cardinals camp have been nothing but a distraction. In addition, it has made Pujols, at least in the short-term, seem unnecessarily self-interested. He is a good guy who, for the moment, doesn't look like one.

The deadline made it seem like this is all about Albert and not one bit about the Cardinals. We know that's not the case with Pujols, an ultimate team player who's battled through intense elbow pain and assorted ailments to win three NL MVP awards while always accepting his role as the cornerstone of his storied franchise. But that's the way it looks today.

Pujols may be, as Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt called him at Wednesday's press conference, "an iconic player.'' But even for someone who has managed his career beautifully to this point, this looks like nothing but a misstep by Pujols and his camp.

Are we to believe that Pujols, such a brilliant performer that you have to reach back deep into the game's history to find a true comparable, is incapable of continuing to play brilliantly if negotiations are still ongoing? There was no reason for Pujols' camp, led by agent Dan Lozano, to set a deadline and halt talks until the end of the season. Keep talking, but continue to keep it mostly quiet if you wish.

Pujols is expected to arrive in the Cardinals' clubhouse on Thursday, and it's been suggested by a person in his camp that he won't discuss the matter when he does. If he knows what's good for him, he better talk now. His camp ceded the white hat by setting the deadline, and he needs to explain himself.

It isn't going to be an easy explanation, either, not just because superstar ballplayers make monstrous sums of money but because he is the one who cut off talks with the only franchise he's ever known. He should have let the team do that. Pujols is understandably a legendary figure in St. Louis, and his deadline stance has surely dropped him half a peg in the eyes of some in that city, which is described by one observer as the "the ultimate company town.''

DeWitt characterized his own emotion Wednesday as "disappointment'' when the deadline came and went, as has been expected by most for a week or more now. But the reality is that this was a long shot to get done now, anyway. When superstars get this close to free agency, they don't usually pass it up.

DeWitt said "out of respect'' to the other side, they won't interrupt the cessation of talks with a phone call or text. But he also smartly said that "the Cardinals are always open for business,'' which struck exactly the right note. They said they made a great effort, and they are willing to keep trying if the other side will let them. Whether they are or not, the Cardinals looked like the good guys Wednesday.

GM John Mozeliak said he got the feeling that free agency held an allure for Pujols, and there's no reason to be doubt that. Free agency does wonders for alltime greats. So the reality is that it's pretty unlikely they can do a deal in the coming months, or even in the five-day exclusive negotiating window the team will have after the World Series, anyway. But why tell St. Louis you don't even want to talk about it?

DeWitt got a ridiculously great deal with Pujols the first time around -- an eight year, $116 million contract signed before the 2005 season -- and the reality is that both sides might not mind seeing what the market has to offer. As DeWitt pointed out, they made a deal with their own Matt Holliday (for $120 million over seven years) even after he became a free agent. Maybe they can do the same with Pujols.

Three competing executives say they expect the rival Cubs to make a big push for Pujols and, indeed, they do look like the greatest outside possibility at the moment. Wouldn't that cast him in a new light for Cardinal Nation? The Cubs have the resources and the need, and execs feel they will pursue either Prince Fielder or more likely Pujols.

"They'll give him the A-Rod deal,'' one exec opined.

"They'll give him $33 million or $34 million for seven years,'' guessed another exec.

The market for Pujols' services might be hurt by the fact that the Yankees already have Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox will have presumably locked up Adrian Gonzalez by the time the season ends. But it will still be ripe for the greatest player ever to reach free agency. The Rangers, Orioles, Nationals, Giants and Angels also look like possibilities.

The Cardinals made what they consider a great effort, and indications are that they showed a willingness to go to seven or eight years, with the eight-year deal being for a lower average annual value, maybe $25 million for eight and $28 million for seven, or something along those lines (though those numbers couldn't be absolutely confirmed).

But word is, Pujols sought a 10-year deal for Alex Rodriguez money, or even above that, meaning at least $275 million. Sources tell SI.com Lozano also broached the subject of an ownership stake in the team, too.

DeWitt said both sides have agreed not to talk about what was discussed. So all we know for sure now is that Pujols is the one who set the deadline and that no deal was reached, casting an early pall over the spring camp of one of baseball's most storied franchises.

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