The handful of you who read my weekly column (thanks to my family for their unwavering support) will remember me complaining about greedy owners last week, in the context of the ongoing saga of the NFL collective bargaining agreement. The three of you will also recognize how hypocritical/contradictory most of my opinions have been, so I thought it best to keep to form this week.

Yesterday, first basemen Albert Pujols effectively opted out of his contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals, ensuring his free agency at the end of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. Over the course of his 10-year career in St. Louis, Pujols has built a résumé that easily qualifies him as one of, if not perhaps the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. The Machine has been the Rookie of the Year and a three-time MVP of the National League (a runner-up four times), and has been voted into the All-Star Game every season. He has scored more than 100 runs in every season except for 2007, when he touched home plate 99 times, amounting to a career average of 123 runs averaged over 162 games (the length of an MLB season).

He averages 42 home runs, 128 RBIs and nearly 200 hits per season.

OK, so we get it. The guy’s an animal. This is certainly no surprise to anyone who’s watched baseball over the past decade.

You may be surprised to know that despite these numbers and achievements which unequivocally established Pujols as the greatest hitter in the modern baseball era, he’s not even among the top 25 highest-paid athletes in the MLB. In fact, Pujols’s 2010 salary was only the third-highest on his team, whose annual payroll for the upcoming season is less than half of that of the New York Yankees.

Clearly his expiring contract severely undervalues his performance. He is right to demand more money. But if we dig a little deeper into this whole issue of one man’s contract negotiation saga, we can uncover some deeper stories:

  1. For starters, this “deadline” is really nothing more than Pujols’s commitment to his current team to not distract them with the drama of their all-star’s uncertain future. He reports today to spring training camp, and has made clear to his agent Dan Lozano, as well as the Cardinals organization, that he does not wish to burden his teammates with his contract negotiations during the season. He will not extend his contract at the current time, and will resume the conversation at the end of the Cardinals 2011 season. (Only time will tell if the discussion is truly put on hold, but the cynic in me thinks it is highly unlikely. …)

  2. After rejecting a handful of offers from St. Louis, Pujols has sent a pretty clear message that his current team just cannot afford him any longer. They will certainly not be excluded from bidding for a contract once he is a free agent, but this news certainly casts a huge shadow of doubt on the giant’s future in St. Louis. It may seem a bit of a dramatic/obvious point to make, but I think it’s a clear demonstration that small-market teams stand little chance in the free agency bidding of the MLB. At this point, the league has been so severely polarized by the lack of a salary cap that the New York Yankees spent approximately $170 million more last year on players than the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is not to say that spending is the only key to success (the Texas Rangers, the ALCS champions and American League representatives in the World Series, have the fourth-lowest payroll in the MLB), but I don’t think it hurts.

  3. Perhaps the most interesting part of the valuation process for Pujols’ contract has been the “support” he’s gotten from the players union, the Major League Baseball Players Association. The union has urged Pujols not to agree too quickly to any offers from St. Louis, and rather, to wait it out and receive the highest market offer for his contract. Tony La Russa, the manager of the Cardinals, has made two official statements in the last several days accusing the players union of manipulating Pujols as a star athlete to “set the bar” in order to establish a higher league average salary. Union representatives have made mixed statements in response, indicating that there may be some truth to La Russa’s accusations.

Last week, I argued that the owners were greedy robber barons exploiting their players. A commenter online alerted me to the fact that the NFL players union was demanding that they receive 50 percent of the league revenue paid out in salaries and benefits. This week, we have the baseball players union pressuring their top athlete to squeeze every last dollar out of his contract in order to boost the league average and minimum payouts.

Maybe last week, I should have titled the article “Sports are business too,” because it seems like just about everyone looks as self-interested as possible in the great debate over Albert Pujols contract — except for the slugger himself.

He may disappoint the St. Louis fans at the end of the season, but his poise and professionalism throughout this dramatic contract debate should earn him plenty more.

Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.