The — pardon the pun — red-letter day of the 2011 Major League Baseball season arrived weeks before Opening Day. Albert Pujols’ self-imposed deadline for contract negotiations came and went Wednesday, February 16 — the day before he reported to the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Jupiter, FL — with Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals unable to agree on a new deal that will keep Pujols in St. Louis for the rest of his career.

Pujols, who is in the last year of an eight-year, $116-million contract he signed in 2004, has no plans to negotiate with the Cardinals until the Cardinals’ exclusive five-day negotiating window between the end of the World Series and the start of free agency in late October or early November.

Deadlines such as the one Pujols created aren’t binding, of course, and nobody will be surprised if Pujols’ representatives and the Cardinals quietly pick up negotiations and reach an agreement long before he hits free agency. But still, the now very real possibility of the best player in baseball — and a player who is synonymous with the Cardinals — reaching the free agent market for the first time is a jarring one for the Cardinals and their fans.

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Pujols is perhaps the most rock-solid future Hall of Famer playing today. In just 10 seasons, he has won three MVP awards and finished second two other times in compiling a .331 average, 408 home runs and 1,230 RBI. He’s never hit below .312, hit fewer than 32 homers, finished with fewer than 103 RBI or scored fewer than 99 runs in a season. The Cardinals have won one World Series, reached two World Series and advanced to the playoffs five times with Pujols in the fold.

Pujols doesn’t rank among the top 10 players in baseball in terms of continual service with one franchise, but no team’s fortunes are tied as closely with its marquee player as the Cardinals with Pujols. He is still at his peak, unlike someone like Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones, and the mid-market Cardinals don’t have the resources to replace his production should he depart.

“[The Cardinals are] hard to compare to the Phillies because they have so many big players that are the core of that baseball team,” Jake Conaway, the general manager of Wanamaker Ticket Office in Philadelphia, told TicketNews. “You have somebody who hits 40-plus homers a year and has over 100 RBI a year — you take somebody of that caliber away, it is definitely going to have an impact on wins and losses, not to mention fans.”

In addition, St. Louis is one of the few cities in America where baseball remains king, so the defection of Pujols would have a far more jarring effect than it would just about anywhere else.

“In St. Louis, that’s become a baseball town,” Conaway said. “The Rams, they’re obviously getting better, but the core of that city revolves around baseball.”

An exit by Pujols would have an obvious impact at gate as well. The Cardinals have ranked among the top three teams in attendance in the National League in each of the last six seasons, since the last season at the original Busch Stadium in 2005, and have finished below fourth in the NL in average attendance just once in Pujols’ 10 seasons. However, their average attendance has dipped slightly in each of the last three years, from 43,855 per game in 2007 (the year after the Cardinals won the World Series) to 40,756 per game last year.

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Conaway said he doesn’t think Pujols’ uncertain contract status will impact ticket sales for this year, because fans are perpetually optimistic their favorite team will find a way to keep its marquee player, but that the Cardinals will pay an immediate price if Pujols ends up somewhere else.

“I think most people are confident in teams like the Cardinals, that they have the resources to sign him and feel a deal will get done,” Conaway said. “But you take away somebody like that, a superstar like when the [NBA] Sixers lost Allen Iverson — sales change drastically.”