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Chasing the big prize

LOS ANGELES — As we continue to lose our financial minds in sports, there are occasional blips of common sense.

Not many, mind you. Not in a world where the salary of a basketball player can be measured in six figures a game, or a baseball player in six figures an inning.

Interestingly, the pro football player who risks life and limb and likely future serious physical impairment, trails in the category of obscene cash flow. Maybe in his next contract talks, he can cut a deal to be paid by the concussion.

The hot topic of the day is Albert Pujols, the hit-the-ball-out-of-sight first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. He is a wonderful player, and by all accounts, a decent and caring human being. He is also a free agent, so the sky is the limit on his worth.

Quickly, all this gets tied up in polarizing concepts of owners' fiscal responsibility and fans' emotion. Owners have to pay the bills. Fans, via their mouthpieces on sports talk radio and their alter-ego typists on the sports pages, respond that only if they sign him will they come.

That, of course, has been proved to be absurd. The fans always come, especially in a baseball heaven such as St. Louis. And especially the season after the Cardinals — with Pujols — won the World Series.

Still, the foolishness of the numbers being tossed around needs some perspective, a long-gone concept in sports. The common-sense cow left the sports barn years ago.

Pujols will be 32 in January. He has already played 11 seasons. Even if he chose to, he probably couldn't get himself steroid-ed up for a Barry Bonds/Mark McGwire late-in-career surge because baseball's current testing won't allow that.

So ponder the nine- or 10-year, $200 million offers reportedly coming his way. At 41, will he be worth the $20 million still owed him? Can we conjure up visions of Alex Rodriguez, who is in a similar salary category, striking out in his last at-bat this season with a chance for the World Series on the line? The Yankees paid big money for moments just like that and got left at the altar.

There is a cost of doing business. Whatever that really is went out the window in sports years ago.

A simple question remains in the Pujols derby. Is everybody nuts?

Stories say that the Miami Marlins were the main bidders for Pujols, with the Cardinals trying to match and stay in the game. It's even rumored that the Angels might be interested.

Holy Vernon Wells!

One argument says this is all merely what the market drives. Another argument would counter that the market needs to return to reality, that owners who buy into this market-driven claptrap deserve what they get: dreadful long-term return on investment.

Right now, they take solace in the ever-increasing value of their teams. It doesn't matter that they pay a fungo-hitting utility infielder $5 million a year. Their team's worth will go up by $30 million in the same year.

But what if that went away as fast as the value of so many homes in our recent economic plunge? What if people in large numbers, many just trying to buy shoes for the kids, became angry at the greed and excess in sports and started putting up tents to occupy areas around the stadium ticket windows, rather than around city halls and banks?

What if people actually started to understand and react to the dynamics of big-time sports today? What if, for example, fans started to understand that college football bowl season is not really bowl season. It is programming for ESPN.

All that talk about getting to six wins to be bowl-eligible is a joke. The majority of bowls are little more than a recruiting tool for coaches and an excuse for a couple more weeks of practice in a season that already drones on well past the physical and mental well-being of a college student.

All buttery over your school's spot in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl? Can't wait for your team to be tough in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl?

Like the Pujols story, the bowls are all about money. The vast majority exist only for the bottom line of ESPN, the worldwide leader in profit and self-promotion. Not so long ago, we had a dozen or so bowl games. Playing in one meant something. Today, we have 35, with 33 under broadcast rights of ESPN or Disney affiliate ABC. The Sun Bowl is on CBS, the Cotton Bowl on Fox.

Albert Pujols is merely another horizon on the sports landscape. Don't blame him. Blame us — owners, fans, athletes, media. Pujols is a big story because we make him so. While we chase the sensational, we shrug off the significant.

Ah yes, the significant, my aforementioned blips of common sense.

Last summer, Angels pitcher Jered Weaver signed a contract that could have been worth millions more and asked the pertinent question: "How much more do you need?"

Monday, Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin, whose 29-25 overall record and 10-win season in 2010 were apparently not good enough, stepped down with a year left on his contract. In doing so, he donated back to the school $500,000 of his salary so that it would be better positioned financially to hire his successor.

Neither Weaver nor McMackin will starve, but each, in his own way, practiced some perspective.

For we glass-half-full people, the actions of Weaver and McMackin mean that all is not lost. For everybody else, they were merely a blip.

Free agent slugger Albert Pujols is weighing offers from several teams, including his hometown St. Louis Cardinals. - AP