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Loyal followers

Tom Pagnozzi had a number of choices this past winter. A free agent after 10 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 34-year-old catcher was surprised and delighted to find there was considerable interest in his services.

Ten teams made inquiries; he eliminated four, and the other six tendered formal offers. Pagnozzi had the chance to strike it rich. He analyzed, reviewed and studied the options and possibilities.

Then he rendered a stunning decision, one made even more amazing considering the perception of how greed pervades baseball today.

He took the lowest offer.

"A lot of people told me I was crazy," Pagnozzi said. "They asked me where I was educated in math."

The Chicago White Sox offered a three-year deal that guaranteed him about $6-million and, with incentives, could have been worth more than $9-million. The Houston Astros and four other teams tried to throw millions at him.

But Pagnozzi decided home _ and, in his case, home plate _ is where the heart is.

So he left $4-million plus on the table and opted to stay with St. Louis, accepting a two-year deal that guaranteed him $4-million, with a shot at an additional $600,000 in bonus money.

Better yet, he made the decision for a number of right reasons _ loyalty to the organization he began his career with 14 years ago, the chance to win a championship, overall quality of life and the best situation for his family.

"It was funny going out in St. Louis after the deal," Pagnozzi said. "Before the deal, wherever I went, people would go, "You can't leave, you can't leave.' Then when I signed it was, "Thanks, man. Thanks. But what were you thinking?'

"A lot of people said that. "Are you crazy?' There were times I felt I probably was crazy. But I don't regret it. I would do the same thing today. Exactly the same thing."

Pagnozzi claims to have been of sound mind and body when he made the decision. He swears he did not have to turn in his membership card to the players union for turning down money. Even crazier, he thinks what he did may become a trend.

"You're always going to have guys take the money and run," Pagnozzi said. "But I think you're going to start seeing more guys, because the money is so greater now early in careers than it used to be, have a little more loyalty."

Indeed, Pagnozzi is not the only player to put sense before dollars.

Free-agent catcher Terry Steinbach passed on a reported four-year, $18.75-million offer from Toronto to return to his home state of Minnesota, signing a three-year, $8-million deal with the Twins and claiming there was more to baseball, and more to life, than money. Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor had come home for similar reasons.

Dennis Eckersley and Gary Gaetti took less than they could have gotten on the open market to stay with St. Louis. Craig Biggio left big dollars on the table last year to stay with Houston. Barry Larkin and Hal Morris gave up other opportunities to remain with Cincinnati.

"In the end, what you really have to consider is the quality of life and how comfortable you are in a situation," said Morris, who made $3.3-million in 1995 and played for $1.6-million as part of his new deal in 1996. "There are a lot of guys out there who are making a lot of money and they're miserable where they're at."

For some players, the lure of the dollar is too alluring to pass up, especially during their first swing at free agency. But for some older players who have signed some big-dollar contracts, lifestyle and location are becoming increasingly important factors.

"In most cases, the players have the ability to make their money just about any place they want to," St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty said. "The main factors should be if he's happy, if his family's happy, and if it's a situation he's comfortable with."

Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said the quality of life in the Tampa Bay area will be a definite advantage in recruiting free agents. "We feel over a certain period of time the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will sign some great players because of our location, the lifestyle of this area and the type of championship organization we plan to run," LaMar said.

Pagnozzi, who has a wife and two daughters, said the money was truly not an issue.

"I've stayed in this game for 10 years. I'm not a superstar ability-wise. I'm an average player, maybe above average skill-wise. I've been very fortunate," he said.

"I just came off a deal for $10.5-million and I made a million and a half before that. If you can't live off that, then $50-million is not going to be enough. Why was I going to move to a place where I didn't know if I was going to be happy?

"I know I'm going to be happy in St. Louis. I know that for a fact. I'm going to enjoy playing there. There are great fans and it's an outstanding city. I know I'm going to enjoy it. I know I'm going to love it. Let's say I went to Chicago, or elsewhere. I don't know 100 percent that I'm going to enjoy it, that I'm going to fit in. To me it just wasn't worth the extra money."

Besides, he said, he and Colleen don't really need it.

"We've never spent money wildly. I'm not saying I've been tight with it. Hell, my nickname's Santa, so obviously I've taken care of some of the boys," Pagnozzi said.

"We don't live where you have to have the new Mercedes every year. We're not those type of people. We've done very well with our money. I have very competent people that have handled my financial affairs and have done a hell of a job with it. Obviously if they hadn't then I would have taken more money. But I'm very comfortable to know that I'm never going to have to work a day in my life after this.

"It just wasn't going to be worth it when you weighed everything. The difference of a few million more and being unhappy or a few million less and being happy as can be. It's pretty simple."

"I think it's remarkable," Jocketty said. "I think it's an indication of what kind of person he is. He's a very loyal player who wanted to play in a winning situation and wanted to play for the same club his entire career."

Ironically, there still is a chance Pagnozzi's stay with St. Louis could end prematurely.

As part of the new contract, he gave up his right to be protected for the expansion draft even though come July he will have no-trade status by virtue of having 10 years in the majors and five with the same team. That means he could be available for the picking when Tampa Bay and Arizona stock their rosters Nov. 18.

"I look at it this way _ I would love to stay in St. Louis," Pagnozzi said. "If Arizona takes me, I go home. That's where I'm from. And I love St. Pete. I've been coming here 15 years and I have a house here. If they take me I relocate here permanently, the kids go to school here and we live here year-round. It's real simple.

"It's like I'm really in a situation where all three places are great to me."

_ Staff writer John Romano contributed to this report.