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Believe Albert Pujols will be a Cub? You’re embracing fantasy

The ideCarlos Zambrano (left) Albert Pujols joining forces next seasmight be giving goosebumps Cubs’ faithful but reality is Pujols doesn’t

The idea of Carlos Zambrano (left) and Albert Pujols joining forces next season might be giving goosebumps to the Cubs’ faithful, but the reality is Pujols doesn’t fit ownership’s game plan. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: August 30, 2011 12:15AM

It was a smile and a firm handshake from Jim Hendry on Wednesday. No hug necessary between the two of us.

Don’t get me wrong — the Cubs’ general manager was actually smelling pretty good hours before a showdown against the St. Louis Cardinals, but hugs seem to complicate relationships on the North Side these days, and the last thing the Cubs need right now is to be more complicated.

‘‘I didn’t even walk away from it thinking there was a hug,’’ Hendry said of ‘‘The Man-Hug Heard Down I-55’’ a day earlier.

Before Tuesday’s game with the rival Cardinals, Hendry and St.  Louis star Albert Pujols embraced behind the batting cage, only because underneath the stands would have really had people talking. Plus there’s rats.

Yes, it’s the same Albert Pujols who will be a free agent this offseason, poised to sign one of the richest contracts in major-league history.

Do the math and smile, Cubs fan.

Then promptly pick up the nearest stapler and punch it into your chest to help snap you back to reality.

Pujols is not going to be a Cubbie next year or in the foreseeable future. And thank goodness for that. It would be one of the worst baseball decisions for an organization that arguably had the market cornered on decisions gone bad over the last five years.

‘‘We shook hands, we’re good friends — that’s what we’ve done forever,’’ Hendry said, still explaining the embrace with the Cardinals’ All-Star first baseman. ‘‘I alerted people in spring training when all the hoopla started: When I see Albert, I’m not going to change. Shame on me if I would have. I wasn’t going to hide in my office.’’

The ‘‘hoopla’’ Hendry’s referring to is speculation the Cubs would be in on the bidding for Pujols in 2012.

And why wouldn’t they be? They haven’t shied away from big-ticket players over the last decade. Then consider that the competition for Pujols has dwindled over the last month, with the New York Mets
and Los Angeles Dodgers in financial chaos.

Finally, it’s public knowledge what comes off the books for the Cubs after this season. Kosuke Fukudome ($14.5 million in 2011), Carlos Pena ($10 million), John Grabow ($4.8 million), and of course the dead money that is Carlos Silva ($11.5 million) are all free agents.

So seemingly, the money would be there if not for one thing: the years.

The Ricketts family is committed to owning the Cubs for a long time and owning them the right way. There’s a business model in place, and Pujols isn’t a fit. Not when Tom Ricketts came out right after taking over the team and said there’s ‘‘no silver bullet’’ to win a World Series.

He went a step further this spring when asked about the mega-type contract Pujols and his reps reportedly are chasing.

‘‘The length of the deal is often a bigger problem than the dollars,’’ Ricketts said. ‘‘You have to be very careful if you’re going to sign one of those longer deals, if you’re going to take on one of those guys for seven, eight, nine years. Better make sure that’s the guy you want.’’

For maybe four more years, Pujols will be a guy you want. With Pujols now 31 — according to him — a deal could turn bad quickly if it does end up being for seven or eight years. Basically, he could be the worst-case scenario for a Cubs team that could use that money to fill numerous spots on a roster filled with holes.

The formula the Cubs now seem to be following will involve free-agent spending — but when the time is right. What that means is some more growing pains for a fan base past the brink of patience.

‘‘If you’ve got a good system and you know your system inside and out, that’s half the battle,’’ Hendry said. ‘‘It’s a three-way process — develop your own players, develop a bunch of guys that you think might not be your first wave, move those, and then when you need a guy or two, [free agency]. But it all starts with having talent in your system. If not, you’re going to be buying, reselling, and it goes on.’’

So are the Cubs rebuilding? No. Call it rethinking. And it won’t happen overnight.

Try to hug that idea, Cubs fan.

And keep a stapler nice and close.

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