This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 6, 2011 - Judy DeFrancesco of St. Louis was all smiles Wednesday night as the Cardinals beat the Phillies 5-3 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
"I love it. I love it,'' said DeFrancesco, who wore a No. 5 Albert Pujols jersey and a red plastic batting helmet with a cardinal yard ornament perched on the top.
The Cardinals rollercoaster of a season is headed back to Philadelphia after a rocking good time at Busch Stadium that eased the disappointment of Tuesday's 3-2 loss that had put the team one game away from postseason elimination. The teams will play the deciding game on Friday.
"We're going to see Albert again in St. Louis -- this year and next,'' said DeFrancesco confidently, as she nodded her head, causing the bird to happily flap its wings atop her head.
Even as the sell-out crowd whooped and hollered and waved rally flags madly Wednesday night, fans like DeFrancesco were aware that Game 4 might have been their last chance to see Pujols in a home team uniform.
Pujols has been a Cardinal since 2001, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He has been a Major League All-Star nine times and the National League's Most Valuable Player three times. But after he and the team failed to agree on a new contract last spring, Pujols, 31, put talks on hold until the postseason. He will be a free agent and able to sign with any team.
DeFrancesco believe that Pujols will be back next season -- and that the team's postseason play will help convince him to re-sign.
"He is a Cardinal. He will stay,'' she said. "He supports St. Louis, and it's not just about the money with him.''
The Cardinals paid Pujols $16 million this year and reportedly offered him a nine-year deal for about $200 million. That seems like a lot of money until it is compared with deals other teams have made with their stars: Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees pulls in $32 million a year and the Phillies' Ryan Howard is making at least $20 million a year. Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday's 2011 salary was $17 million; he signed a seven-year, $120 million contract in 2010.
Pujols is a fan favorite, not only for his hitting but also for his hustle on the field. Although he was hitless Wednesday, he wowed the crowd in the sixth inning by nailing Chase Utley, the Phillies lead runner, at third base instead of taking an easier out at first.
Mike Gassmann of Collinsville believes plays like that make Pujols priceless and that the Cardinals should sign him again at all costs.
"Albert on his worst days is better than most players on their best days," said Gassman, a diehard fan who like most of Cardinal Nation watched the win on TV. "He is as smart as he is talented. That is the intangible that Albert has that doesn't show up in the box score. You can't pay too much for that."
Wednesday's win was a team effort, starting with a good pitching effort by Edwin Jackson and the bullpen. Third baseman David Freese earned four RBIs, including a two-run home run in the sixth inning off Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt. Nevertheless, the stadium erupted every time Pujols stepped to the plate.
But as loyal as they are to No. 5, fans understand the high-stakes nature of the financial wrangling and some worry that such a high-cost deal could prevent the team from signing other players.
Longtime fan Kerry Ward of Taylorville, Ill., who was in town to see the playoffs, believes that Pujols is the best player in baseball, and he hopes he will re-sign with the Cards.
"But he can't hold us hostage," Ward said.
Greg Lazerus, 28, who now works in New York, returned to St. Louis to attend Game 4 with his mom and brother. He said he knew that he could be witnessing baseball history if this turned out to be Pujols' last home game as a Cardinal.
"But I hope not,'' said Lazerus who had found a standing-room-only spot in section 129 deep near the right field foul pole.
Lazerus said he thought the crowd's rousing response to Pujols was an indication that they were not only excited about the postseason but aware of his status with the team.
"I don't think it's the first thing people are thinking about tonight, but people know this could be his last at-bats,'' he said.
Lazerus said that fans would be disappointed if Pujols didn't return next season, but they would understand if the team couldn't afford to pay one-third of its budget to one player.
He believes that money won't be the only deciding factor.
"Just making the playoffs increased Pujols' chances of coming back," he said.
John and Katrina Schroeder of St. Louis said they knew they might be seeing Pujols as a Cardinal for the last time, but they preferred not to think about it.
"I'm hoping the fans have convinced him to stay," she said, adding that she expected other teams would throw a lot of money at the star.
John Schroeder believes Pujols is worth more in St. Louis because "we've built him up as the next Stan Musial." He predicted that the Cardinals would sign him but that the team can't afford to overpay one player.
And if Pujols signs with another team?
"Life goes on," Katrina Schroeder said. "We've lost good players before."
"I probably won't wear this shirt anymore," said John Schroeder about the No. 5 T-shirt on his back.
"We'll retire his T-shirt," she agreed.