Albert Pujols and his awkward exit

The inglorious demise of Albert Pujols's career with the Los Angeles Angels was not surprising but the general consensus is that it could have been handled better.

My question is, How? There is no graceful way of showing a guy the door when he doesn't want to leave -- especially when the guy happens to be an all-time great, which Pujols certainly is. Or was. The truth is that he hasn't been in that elite category for the past 10 years, or since he was a St. Louis Cardinal. He is exhibit A in the argument that signing a player to a long-term contract at exorbitant money is pure folly, plain and simple.

Pujols has since signed on with the Dodgers for the MLB minimum amount, the balance of the $30 million dollar salary he's due will be paid by the Angels. He will serve primarily as a pinch hitter, a role he was unwilling to accept a week earlier.

Pujols was signed to a 10-year mega-deal by the Angels based upon what he had accomplished in 11 years with St. Louis, not on what he might do in the decade ahead. While he was with the Cardinals, an average year consisted of a .328 batting average, 41 home runs, and 130 runs batted in. And that's just an average year, mind you. A stat that the Angels failed to take into consideration is that he was 32 years old before playing a single game in Anaheim. Now even his listed age -- already older than any current player in the major leagues -- is being called into question.

For the record, his stats line while with the Angels for the past nine plus years is .256 BA, 222 homers (less than half the 445 he had with the Cardinals) and 783 RBI, compared to 1329 with St. Louis. He was hitting only .198 with just four home runs and 12 RBI when the Angels lowered the boom. He is obviously all through but he is being paid $30 million to fulfill the last year of his contract, so he wasn't going to throw that away. The team will have to make good on it now whether or not he plays for it.

Baseball is a beautiful game, but it's a tough, hard-nosed business. Did Albert Pujols deserve a better send-off than he got? Sure he did. He was a great player, one of the best ever; and his children and grandchildren will reap the benefits of the millions that he was paid for playing. He got to live his dream. But what of of the thousands of kids who might have suffered an injury at just the wrong time, or had a bad day when the scouts were in the stands, or just didn't quite have the talent it took to make grade, and had to put their dreams aside? Pujols is one of the lucky ones, and I'm sure that he'd be the first to admit it. His problem was that he stayed on stage too long, long after his prime. In his case he was being paid too much to quit. The next great ball player to face that problem is Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers. He's making $30 million this year and is on the books $32 million in each of the next two seasons. Even though he can't hit anymore, he's being paid too much to quit, so he'll keep showing up until they change the locks on the doors.

One of the most difficult things for any performer -- whether it be an athlete or an entertainer -- to do is to recognize when it is time to leave the arena. Ted Williams hitting a dramatic home run in his very last at-bat is the exception, not the rule. Far more common is the sight of Babe Ruth (or Albert Pujols) being taken out of the game when he's become a hindrance to his team. Even then it isn't easy.

In the field of politics, Tip O'Neill got out at just the right time, when people recognized that he was sincere in his beliefs and that he and Ronald Reagan, though they disagreed politically, had high regard -- and even affection -- for one another. When he stepped down as the formerly reviled speaker of the House, he had become a beloved figure. Yet, he missed the action, the day-to-day scuffles with his adversaries. The competition.

That is what old athletes miss, even when they can't compete as well as they once could. It's hard to leave the spotlight behind. It's what compels old fighters to climb back into the ring when they are past their prime. It's why Muhammad Ali continued to fight long after he'd lost the ability to dodge and slip punches. And he paid a high price for it. His rope-a-dope strategy against George Foreman might have worked in the short run, as Foreman punched himself out and was kayoed. In the meantime, though, he had inflicted fearsome damage on Ali. In his last years Ali was undeniably punch drunk.

Even Frank Sinatra, though his voice had lost its richness and he was reduced to reading the lyrics of songs, songs he'd been singing for half a century and more, from a teleprompter, kept making personal appearances almost until the end. He couldn't turn his back on the spotlight.

There is a famous show biz story told of Jack Carter, a versatile comedian of 50 years ago. He could do it all -- tell jokes, sing, dance, do impersonations, and play just about every instrument in an orchestra. One night while performing in Las Vegas he was right on his game and the audience was enthralled. He did everything, singing, dancing, and telling funny stories, and received ovation after ovation. He was as seduced as well as the audience, and his act went on for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. Finally the audience became exhausted. It just didn't have the energy for any more ovations. It was totally drained. When Carter finally left the stage, he said to one of the stage hands, "Damn! I almost had 'em."

The truth is that he did have 'em. He had 'em all along. He just didn't know when to get off the stage. That's the tough part.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.