More on Albert the Great

With all this buzz about Albert Pujols on my blog (hehe), I figure it's time to post an article that looks at what Pujols was like as a juco ballplayer. Southern Mississippi's Sun-Herald caught up with the scout, Dave Karaff, who recommended Pujols to the Cards. The Cards drafted him in the '99 draft, at the bequest of Karaff and his superior. Karaff was fired four years later as the Cards shook up their scouting system, bringing in "numbers guys" to replace some of the aging traditional scouts. Nowadays, Karaff is semi-retired and living on a golf course. He stocks shelves part-time at Wal-Mart for the insurance benefits.

Karaff admits in the story that Pujols was far from a sure thing. He was a bit meaty at the time, especially for a shortstop. Karaff envisioned him moving over to third, and thought that if Al could find some consistency (boy did he ever) he had a chance to be a pretty good hitter.

It's hard to gauge how prep success will carry over to college or the pros, but from his earliest days of organized ball, Albert was a phenomenal hitter. In his first year of organized ball in the States -- his sophomore year of high school -- Albert hit .471 with 11 homers and 32 RBI to lead his team to Missouri's state championship. The following year, opposing coaches wised up and he was walked 55 times in just 88 plate appearances. (He sill homered eight times.) He graduated high school a semester early at the age of 18 -- a long story -- and enrolled at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City. There, he continued to be a man amongst boys, hitting .461 with 22 homers. His old juco coach says, "he had baseball instincts that just couldn't be taught."

It was his strength that impressed Karaff, who thought he had Pujols all to himself until he found out that Tampa Bay was interested in drafting Albert, too. They flew him down for a private workout, but apparently Pujols did not impress the Devil Rays brass. With Tampa Bay passing, Pujols fell all the way to the Cardinals in the 13th round, over 400 picks into the draft. Pujols spent the summer holding out for a better signing bonus -- the Cards offered just $10,000, and he ended up getting $60,000 -- and played for a collegiate summer league team in Kansas. His coach there raved about him: "He was so aware of everything -- how to hit certain kinds of pitchers, how to run the bases, how to play every situation. He came to us with a purpose in mind. He had a goal in mind, and he wasn't distracted from it."

Albert made short work of the minor leagues, advancing from single-A to triple-A in one season. (And of course, he played in Peoria, Ill., for a bulk of that time, and I didn't go see him.) He continued to display an unparalleled work ethic in his one season in the minors. Cardinals minor-league hitting instructor Mitchell Page remembers: "He wasn't happy hitting .330 or .340 in A ball, so I gave him all the work he wanted." His manager at low-A Peoria, Tom Lawless, concurs: "He was a very good student. He worked hard and wanted to learn. ... He was very professional in the way he went about his business." His play in Peoria was drawing the eye of opposing scouts, too. In '99, the Cardinals made a mid-season deal to acquire Padres catcher Carlos Hernandez, who ended up being only a half-season rental as he was forced to retire at the end of the season due to a bad back. (Side note: Hernandez caught Ankiel's famous playoff game against Atlanta in which the hurler imploded, turning into "Wild Thing". Some of the blame was later placed on Hernandez's bad back, and his inability to get to a couple high pitches that sailed to the backstop.) Anyway, the Padres wanted either Pujols or outfield prospect Ben Johnson, and the Cards convinced them to take the latter in exchange.

Pujols was leaving a legacy behind at each stage of his development, in part because of his mammoth home run blasts. After hitting memorable home runs in high school and college, Albert hit a ball over the left field fence in Peoria that carried to the roof of the team's dressing room -- well beyond the outfield wall. In 109 games at Peoria, Pujols hit .324 with 17 homers and 84 RBI, striking out just 37 times. That earned him a mid-season promotion to high-A, where he remained for 21 games before getting the call to triple-A Memphis for the team's playoff run. In 11 postseason games, he hit .302, capping off his time there with a 13th-inning, pennant-winning home run.

That got him some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League, an invite to the Cards' spring training camp, and (thanks to Bobby Bonilla's bum knee) a roster spot on the Cards opening day roster in 2001. The rest is "historic history". Anyway, I've blabbed on long enough in defense of Al. The dude is a natural-born hitter, just like Donnie Baseball and Big Papi and Joltin' Joe. The only thing missing is a kick-ass nickname.

1 comment:

Listmaker said...

you had me convinced at the picture of bonds in drag a few posts back.