TAMPA, Fla. — Reggie Jackson, Mr. October himself, walked over Wednesday towards the St. Louis Cardinals dugout, had a simple request.
He wanted to meet their newest star, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
“Reggie Jackson,’’ Goldschmidt said, “I mean, I didn’t think he would even know my name.’’
They chatted for 10 minutes, with Jackson reeling off Goldschmidt’s power numbers, with the conversation ending when Jackson asked Goldschmidt to put his hands in the air. He pressed his palm against Goldschmidt’s, comparing hand sizes. It was close, but Jackson’s hands were bigger.
“He’s a guy I really wanted to meet,’’ Jackson said, “because I’ve admired him so long. There were a lot of moves and a lot of money spent this winter, but that was the best acquisition by any team.
“He’s everything you want in a ballplayer.’’
Goldschmidt hasn’t even played his first regular-season game in a Cardinals’ uniform, yet has already become beloved.
“He comes exactly as advertised,’’ Cardinals veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright says, “because I don’t think you can have higher words of praise going into something. So many of his former teammates texted me and said, ‘Dude, this guy is going to be your all-time favorite teammate. Just wait until you see it.’
“You add Paul Goldschmidt to your team, to your lineup, to your defense, to your clubhouse, and your team instantly gets 25 times more street cred around the league.’’
Now, of course, the Cardinals must find a way to keep the first baseman who has been an All-Star every year since 2013, finishing three times in the top three in the MVP balloting, winning four Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves, while playing at least 155 games in five of the last six seasons.
Maybe now, Goldschmidt will finally get paid what he’s worth after being the game’s most underpaid player the last six years. He cost himself at least $100 million, several executives and agents say, in 2013 when he signed a six-year, $32.5 extension with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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While Goldschmidt didn’t even make $10 million until last season, the Baltimore Orioles were giving first baseman Chris Davis a seven-year, $161 million contract. When Goldschmidt was the greatest all-around first baseman in the game, the Diamondbacks were giving $68.5 million to Yasmany Tomas, who has played only 47 games since 2016. When the Colorado Rockies decided to keep their face of the franchise, Nolan Arenado, signing him to an eight-year, $260 million extension, the Diamondbacks were showing the door to their face of the franchise.
Yet, never once, not publicly, privately, on social media, or even a Twitter burner account, did Goldschmidt complain about his inferior contract. Why, Kevin Towers, the late D-backs GM who signed him to the extension, actually received Christmas cards each year from the Goldschmidts.
“I really hope they pay him, or someone does, because this guy deserves it,’’ said Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who has five years left on his eight-year, $192 million extension. “He should get $30 million a year for six years, at least. This guy is one of the best. He’s so consistent.’’
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Said Wainwright: “I hope he gets $50 million a year.’’
But Goldschmidt happens to be 32 years old when he hits free agency. And as this cold free-agent winter showed us, teams detest paying money for free agents over the age of 30, fearing they’ll quickly regress.
Goldschmidt could be the one to burn that logic into the ground. Yet, no matter what transpires, there will be no tinge of bitterness, or even the slightest regret, he said, signing that extension that made him baseball’s greatest bargain.
“If you look back now,’’ said Goldschmidt, in a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports, “it’s easy to second-guess it. You sign a contract early in your career, you play well, you give up some earning potential. You play bad, and you’re overpaid. I understand that.
“But I’m not looking back regretting it. I was 25, had a year in the league, and I got the opportunity to make a large sum of money. You’re always kind of managing the risk compared to the reward. I felt confident in the decision I made.’’
In a perfect world, the Diamondbacks would have compensated Goldschmidt with a new deal along the way, keeping him in Phoenix where he makes his year-around home, and never wanted to leave.
The dream ended when his cell phone rang the afternoon of Dec. 5. It was D-backs manager Torey Lovullo.
“I just worked out that morning at the Diamondbacks’ facility,’’ Goldschmidt said, “but when I got that call, I had a good idea why. I called my wife, and said, ‘Hey, I think they’re about to trade me.’ I didn’t want it to leak out without her knowing.’’
Goldschmidt arrived, they broke the news he was going to St. Louis, and instead of being angry, hurt, or even upset, he actually thanked them.
“Obviously it was tough, because Arizona was home,’’ Goldschmidt said. “It’s the only organization I knew. But I’m so appreciative of the opportunity they gave me. It wasn’t like I was a first-round pick (eighth round), but they were confident enough to sign me to a contract.
The trade leaked before Goldschmidt arrived home, but that disappointment soon turned into exhilaration, knowing he was about to play for an iconic franchise in a baseball city like no other.
There will be those thunderous standing ovations he’ll receive on opening day. There will be the sellout crowds. And there will be those 11 World Series championship flags prominently displayed in right field.
St. Louis is going to absolutely love Goldschmidt, and he’s going to love the city right back. It’s a perfect marriage with Goldschmidt.
“It feels like he belongs here,’’ said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, “like he’s been here forever. You get a real sense about how much he cares about the entire game of baseball, and the genuine love and passion to win and compete. He loves the game, man. He’s even better than advertised.’’
The Cardinals will try to make the relationship permanent, and in time, will discuss a long-term contract. They’ve got exclusive negotiating rights until November, but if he hits free agency, the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers will be waiting, giving him a chance to return to his home state where he was born and raised.
“I’m not worrying about any of that,’’ Goldschmidt said, “I just want to help this team win. This team has so many great players already, so it’s really not about me.
“I miss everything about Arizona, but I can’t wait to play in front of the St. Louis fans now. I know how much they’re really into the game with the reputation of just appreciating good baseball.’’
They’ll be loving Goldschmidt a whole lot more if he sticks around, but as long as he performs to his usual standards — hitting .297 and averaging 26 homers and 89 RBI in his career — why would the Cardinals possibly let him get away?
Goldschmidt might have been born to play baseball for the Cardinals, just like Reggie was for the Yankees.
“St. Louis,’’ Jackson said, “is going to love this guy.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale