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La Russa may be Cardinals' secret weapon in bid to keep Pujols


JUPITER, Fla. -- Some folks around baseball saw irony in Cardinals manager Tony La Russa claiming without evidence that the baseball players union was influencing Albert Pujols not to take the team's offer (which according to people familiar with the talks was for more than $200 million over nine years). That's because those people see La Russa as potentially having the exact opposite effect on Pujols.

For the record, players union chief Mike Weiner said the union never spoke to Pujols or his agent, Dan Lozano, about "the numbers of the contract,'' and has left it all up to the superstar and his representative. Weiner praised Pujols as being "sophisticated'' and called Lozano "very experienced,'' suggesting they need no help in making an informed decision.

Pujols is indeed very bright. But might he be apt to listen to La Russa should the legendary manager try to influence the iconic player to stay in St. Louis?

Two prominent baseball people with ties to the Cardinals say they believe La Russa could indeed be the one to convince Pujols to stay in St. Louis. La Russa, who has a one-year contract for 2011 and a mutual option for 2012, is a safe bet to want to stay with the Cardinals as long as Pujols remains, and it would benefit him the team significantly in the short-term to keep Pujols.

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What's more, there's no doubt La Russa and Pujols are very close, so close that these two longtime baseball people with Cardinals ties suggest La Russa could make the difference in Pujols' decision. "He has (Pujols') ear for a whole year,'' one baseball person said. "He could be the deciding factor in Pujols remaining a Cardinal.''

The second baseball person agreed, saying there is precedent that suggests La Russa might play a big role here. That person said he believes a large part of the reason Mark McGwire never seriously considered leaving the Cardinals and signed for less than he could have gotten as a free-agent was La Russa's huge influence. "Believe it,'' that person said. "(La Russa) didn't talk about the money with Mark. But he'd say things like, 'You like it here,' and 'Get it done.'''

The Cardinals made a reasonable offer for Pujols, bidding more than $200 million over nine years, according to sources, and tweaking that offer's term and average annual value to try to satisfy Pujols. But it's no surprise Pujols, acknowledged as the best player in the game, halted talks with no deal since he's to become a free agent in November and likely envisions himself getting offers for higher annual salaries on the free-agent market. Pujols is said to have sought to replicate or beat Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275-million Yankees contract.

While the sides appear to have substantial work to do, free agency could have a way of drawing them closer together. The Cardinals have a long history of holding onto their better players, so it still seems difficult to believe they are going to let their best player get away. Pujols' teammate Matt Holliday waited until he was a free agent following the 2009 season before signing back with the Cardinals (for $120 million over seven years), and he opined the other day that the team and its best player will do the same following the year considering his belief both sides want to get it done. Pujols said nothing to dispute that, saying in his first public comments on Thursday that he wants to be a "Cardinal forever.".

The Cardinals had a down day Wednesday when talks were ceased by Pujols' camp, but they couldn't have been shocked not to get a Pujols deal wrapped up so close to free agency. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt admitted his main emotion was "disappointment'' on Wednesday.

But the Cardinals surely haven't given up hope of keeping the game's best player. And it probably doesn't hurt that they have a secret weapon occupying their manager's office.