- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

JUPITER, FLA. (AP) - Albert Pujols‘ locker was stocked Wednesday morning with a red jersey, four pairs of white and gray baseball pants, his spring-training parking pass and several other items.

Still missing: A new contract from the St. Louis Cardinals, and the window to get that done is fast closing.

With a noon Eastern deadline for a new deal looming, Pujols was not at camp with the Cardinals on Wednesday. Many of his teammates were, including a handful of position players who were at work ahead of schedule. Pujols is expected to join them Thursday, whether or not the three-time NL MVP has a contract done to his liking.

“It really doesn’t matter to us,” said Cardinals pitcher and union rep Kyle McClellan. “It’s none of our business. It’s none of anybody’s business. … The truth is, I’ve never been on the mound and thinking of Albert Pujols‘ contract.”

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said Tuesday that he believes Pujols is feeling pressure from the union to “set the bar” with this deal, which some expect could exceed Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million, 10-year pact with the New York Yankees.

On Wednesday, La Russa insisted that he’d said too much already.

“It was kind of omitted. I said if I was running the union or part of the union, I’m not sure I’d handle it any different,” La Russa said, about two hours before the noon deadline. “I checked with some of our veteran coaches. It strains credibility a little bit to think there hasn’t been any contact or mention. He’s too significant.”

Union officials have denied pressuring Pujols or his agent, Danny Lozano. And McClellan said La Russa’s comments did not create an awkward situation for him, even though as the union rep in the Cardinals‘ clubhouse, he had to take a decidedly different stance than his manager.

“It doesn’t really have anything to do with me. I just represent the players,” McClellan said. “All I can do is get the facts that I know, that the union’s job is to make sure that the players and agents are informed. They’re not going to overstep any boundaries and tell anybody what to do. Everybody’s a grown man. They can make a decision for themselves.”

La Russa said often Wednesday morning that his focus is on spring training and the NL Central, not what will or won’t happen with his slugger.

“We don’t want to get our minds cluttered as a team,” La Russa said. “There’s enough to do. … The competition in the Central and the National League has got our complete attention. And that’s just what we’re going to think about. You can choose what you think about. That’s what we’re going to think about.”

General manager John Mozeliak has said it’s not necessary that a deal be signed by noon Wednesday, but the sides would need to have agreed to terms. Mozeliak was planning to speak about the negotiations Wednesday afternoon, team officials said.

Pujols, a nine-time All-Star, is the only player in major league history to hit 30 or more home runs each of his first 10 seasons _ all coming with the Cardinals, the franchise he has said in the past he wants to remain with for the rest of his career.

He has a .331 career batting average and averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs. He’s also won six Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves.

Last year he batted .312 with 42 homers and 118 RBIs and finished second in MVP balloting.

“I don’t think there’s a better guy for us to have on the team,” Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker said. “He’s the face of the franchise. You respect both sides of it. You respect what the Cardinals are doing, you respect the management and what Albert’s agent is doing. It’s a tough situation, as everybody knows. He’s an iconic player.”