- Associated Press - Thursday, December 8, 2011

DALLAS (AP) - Albert Pujols could have been a wealthy Cardinal for life, planning for the day his statue would be erected outside Busch Stadium next to those of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and the other St. Louis greats.

Instead, exactly six weeks after leading the Cardinals to a second title in one of the most thrilling World Series ever, he decided to accept the second-highest contract in baseball history for a new future in southern California with the Los Angeles Angels.

The three-time NL MVP agreed Thursday to a $254 million, 10-year contract with the Angels, leaving behind a heartbroken fan base by jilting one of the sport’s traditional teams for an expansion club with only one championship in its half-century.

For baseball, it was a virtually unprecedented move.

Many top stars have changed teams in their careers, from Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Barry Bonds. But this is perhaps the best player in the game over the past decade, exiting shortly after one of the great postseason power shows.

A big and burly offensive force with a shaved head, the nine-time All-Star has a room full of honors, winning the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award, NL MVPs in 2005, 2008 and 2009, a batting title in 2003 and a pair of Gold Gloves at first base. Who would have predicted that when the Cardinals selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft with the 402nd overall selection?

And now, he’s going West.

As his deal fell into place on the final day of the winter meetings, the Angels struck another big agreement, a $77.5 million, five-year contract with left-hander C.J. Wilson, the ace whose Texas Rangers lost to the Cardinals in the seven-game World Series.

“This is obviously the moment where we have thrown our hat in the ring,” new Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said.

Had he stayed in St. Louis before packed, adoring crowds, Pujols would’ve established a Cal Ripken-like legacy of loyalty, a rare modern star who remained with a franchise from first at-bat to final swing.

Instead, some of his former fans will see him as a sellout.

Pujols rejected a multiyear extension last offseason that was said to include a small percentage of the franchise and cut off negotiations a day before he arrived at spring training. St. Louis also offered the slugger a 10-year deal that chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said was in excess of $200 million.

“I would like our fans to know that we tried our best to make Albert a lifetime Cardinal,” he said in a statement, adding later in a telephone interview: “They were substantially higher than our bid.”

In St. Louis, Pujols has accomplished so much that he would have been beloved no matter his future performance. But in Anaheim, he will have to prove himself anew.

“I think his body’s going to start breaking down and he’s not going to be good for 10 years,” said Katie Coyle, fitness coordinator at the Webster-Kirkwood YMCA in Missouri, a die-hard fan who wore team colors to work during the playoffs. “I think he’s going to regret leaving here. If he’d have stayed here and signed a long-term deal with the Cardinals, they’d have had compassion for him because they’ve seen him at his best.”

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