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10/29/11 3:15 AM ET

St. Louis swan song? If so, Pujols closes on top

Cardinals superstar's free agency will captivate Hot Stove season

ST. LOUIS -- It most certainly does not have to end here. But if this does turn out to be it, the final night Albert Pujols wears a Cardinals uniform, the final images will be indelible.

He dropped to one knee as Allen Craig closed his glove around out No. 27, a deep fly ball to left that sealed the Cardinals' World Series championship on Friday night. Pujols briefly bowed his head, then popped up and pointed up with both hands. He followed with a sprint toward shortstop Rafael Furcal, who leaped into the first baseman's arms.

The two soon joined the mob that had formed near the pitcher's mound.

"This is what you play for," Pujols later said, "to be a world champion."

The images kept coming.

At one point during the on-field trophy presentation, Pujols swapped his cap for a World Series championship beanie. He donned baby blue goggles while spraying champagne.

Once in the plastic-wrapped Cardinals clubhouse, he and catcher Yadier Molina, teammates for the last eight seasons, managed to escape to an empty corner. They embraced for several seconds. Only the two know what words were shared, but it appeared as if both welled up during the conversation.

A few minutes later, Pujols stood across the room, this time grabbing hitting coach Mark McGwire away from reporters so the two could share their own private moment.

"He's a special person," McGwire had said, only seconds earlier. "He's like Stan [Musial]. He's like Bob [Gibson]. He's like Lou [Brock]. He's like Red [Schoendienst]. He's a Cardinal.

"The guy is the greatest player right now, and I think by the time he is done playing, he will be the greatest of all time. I'm just happy I got to see his first year and I got to work with him these last two years."

The question now is whether McGwire will get the chance to see another, whether the Cardinals will continue to have a lineup where No. 5 bats in the three-spot, whether Pujols chooses to close out his Hall of Fame career in his home state.

Pujols will either return next season, ready to help the Cardinals defend their world championship, or he will show up at an unfamiliar Spring Training site in February, introduce himself to new teammates and begin the next part of his career away from the only organization he's ever known.

The future, as immediate as it might be, was the one topic Pujols refused to speak on after the Cardinals' 6-2 Game 7 win on Friday night. Friday was mostly about now, a little about the past but nothing regarding the future.

"To talk about my contract right now, that's the last thing that I'm thinking about," he said, sitting behind a news conference podium alongside his son. "I'm just kind of letting everything come in and the game that we won today.

"Listen, I'm going to be prayerful about it. Whatever decision I make hopefully is the best decision I make for my family and the fans and everybody. Right now, I am just going to enjoy the moment and just celebrate with the guys and pretty much just thank that my teammates that helped me out to accomplish another world championship, because at the end of your career, those are the sweeter moments that you take."

Of all the pitches the Cardinals might make to try and convince Pujols to stay, the greatest transpired over the 28-day period that just culminated. The Cardinals won 11 games over these past four weeks, moving past the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers en route to the franchise's 11th World Series championship.

During his 11-year tenure, Pujols has now been involved in two.

"I mean, I can go around the guys that play 15, 17 years, 14 years in this game and never won one," said Pujols, who finished with a .353 average, five home runs and 16 RBIs this postseason. "And to be able to be in three World Series and to win two, it's incredible."

An integral piece in the Cardinals' success over the last decade, Pujols actually took a backseat to many of his teammates during this World Series. Aside from an historic five-hit, three-homer, six-RBI performance in Game 3, Pujols went just 1-for-19. He was intentionally walked five times.

Pujols did reach base twice in Game 7, though, and scored both times. He stirred a two-out rally with a first-inning walk. He was hit by a pitch during the Cardinals' two-run fifth. Pujols then struck out swinging in the seventh, the at-bat that will go down as his last in St. Louis should free agency take him elsewhere.

"I still think he's the best player ever," teammate Adam Wainwright said. "At some point, you've got to tip your hat and say he's the best, so that's what I'm doing. I'll just enjoy my time with him now and hope he comes back next year."

The recruiting has already started. Outfielder Lance Berkman, for one, approached Pujols during the celebration to offer him two words: "Come back." Manager Tony La Russa will soon begin his own lobbying efforts.

"The season is over, now it's time to start talking about it," La Russa said. "They're going to try and make it work, and we'll see if it can work or not."

Pujols and the Cardinals negotiated last offseason in an attempt to get a new multiyear deal settled before free agency became an issue. Those talks ceased on Feb. 16, a deadline Pujols imposed, and haven't opened back up since.

Estimates on what Pujols is seeking differ, though most believe he is looking to become the highest paid player in Major League history. To do that, he'd have to top Alex Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year, $275 million deal with the Yankees in 2008.

The biggest unknown is simply how many teams are seriously interested -- and actually capable -- of offering that type of money to Pujols this winter. The Marlins, Angels, Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers and even the Rangers are among the suitors who could emerge.

If the Cardinals want to make the first move, they do have a brief window to do so. Beginning at 11:01 p.m. CT on Saturday, teams can negotiate with their own free agents. Other clubs can start submitting offers to players outside their organization beginning at 11:01 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

"Albert has to go and do what he does," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I happen to believe as a traditionalist, and as somebody who believes in all these things, I hope it can be worked out. I hope Albert stays in St. Louis, I really do."

Until Pujols makes his decision, his future will monopolize baseball's Hot Stove season. But that is a discussion for another day. There was other business that needed to be attended to first.

"I think that day will come when we have to work on that, and we'll address it this offseason," Cardinals general manger John Mozeliak said. "But I think tonight is about 25 players that pulled together and pulled in one direction, and that's why we're here."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.