Cardinals fans living the Pujols grief model

I don’t want to over-dramatize the decision made by Albert Pujols to shift his place of employment from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but looking at recent Twitter and message board traffic, many fans are taking the news extremely hard, almost as if they have lost a close family member or a loved one.

Some of the most extreme reactions at either end of the spectrum almost seem unexplainable to the others. To me, it appears that different people are at vastly different phases of dealing with the reality that Pujols has left the Cardinals.

A Swiss doctor named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, introduced the Kübler-Ross Grief Model. It is a cycle of emotional states that describe how people react to a significant negative event in their lives.

The five stages:

Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.

In the Pujols case, it seems few remained in the denial stage very long. At its essence, this was a very black-and-white situation. There could be no mis-diagnosis. Once Pujols’ decision was communicated, it was done. There could be no turning back or major change of course to be re-plotted.

As one might expect, the anger stage has been just the opposite. Many remain there still, however with different targets for their anger. The team took the player for granted; they lowballed and insulted him. The player said it wasn’t about the money, but lied to the fans. He put a greater value on a relationship with a man he had never met than with the countless admirers from his home of the last 11 years. The agent cited competitive bids that apparently did not exist. The wife suggested God set the course and the devil was behind negative reaction, etc…

The targets of the anger are varied, but the feelings strong. Fans threw away Pujols memorabilia while stores gave away Pujols-related stock. Others took to websites, talk radio and message boards to vent.

As some moved into the bargaining stage, they began to think about a future way out. How long might the hastily-arranged Pujols-Angels marriage last? Would Pujols flop on the field long before the decade was over? Would he eventually return to St. Louis before or after his playing days are done?

The 10-year personal services agreement that will follow the 10-year playing contract has caused considerable angst for some. These folks have such a clear vision of the future that they have convinced themselves that when Pujols becomes Hall of Fame-eligible, likely in 15 years, that he will be prohibited from entering the Hall as a Cardinal and that he will never be allowed back to Busch Stadium to be celebrated for his Cardinals success.

The Stan Musial comparisons have been worn to the bone and in some cases twisted beyond recognition. One poster actually said he would rather the Cardinals be a third-place team in return for protecting Pujols’ career-long legacy in St. Louis. That way, Pujols could truly become this generation’s Musial, even if at the expense of fielding a competitive team.

Depression set in when some learned that the deck had been stacked against the Cardinals. The Angels had a new, untapped  revenue source of $150 million per year. Their new television contract created a ready source of funds to satisfy Albert’s every desire – something the Cardinals had no realistic hope of matching.

Another source of depression for some was Pujols’ full-page farewell ad in the Post-Dispatch, driving home the finality of the divorce. Some saw it as a classy move while others characterized it as simply another item to be checked off the Pujols public relations team’s action list.

Pujols’ awkward Angels press conference/pep rally, televised nationally this past weekend, helped hammer home to some the realization that Pujols isn’t coming back. In other cases, it cycled fans back through the anger stage when the player did not seem to give his past the proper due.

Same with Dee Dee Pujols’ Monday radio appearance. It seemed to do little to move anyone toward acceptance, while sending many back into fits of anger, whether directed at the team or the Pujolses themselves. The whole thing began to feel like a “he-said, she-said” episode as claims of who offered what and when were raised and disputed.

Still others, like me, quickly moved ahead to the acceptance phase. Having followed the Cardinals for over four decades, I have seen many highs and lows over the years. This is but another bump in a long road.

The sooner everyone can reach acceptance, the sooner we can all put the loss behind and move ahead.

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