Albert Pujols: revisiting the early years

Albert Pujols entered Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo., for the 1996-1997 school year. He’d recently left the Dominican Republic for New York City to live with his dad and aunt (his parents divorced soon after Pujols was born), and witnessed a shooting in the city. He moved west to the Kansas City area to join his extended family in a safer place.

A while ago I went looking for coverage of his amateur career to find out how he came to be a 13th-round pick in the 1999 draft: both what he did in high school and junior college and why his talent wasn’t fully appreciated by major league teams.

Pujols first appeared in local newspapers on March 27, 1997, when the Kansas City Star reported on the start of the high school baseball season and Fort Osage’s attempt to recover from a football injury to its key pitcher: “With plenty of new faces and questions to be answered, somebody to watch will be junior Albert Pujols. . . . He collected two hits Monday.”

Heading into the state playoff semifinals in 1997, Pujols was hitting .471, with 11 home runs and 32 RBIs as the team’s biggest hitting threat. Fort Osage had him playing shortstop; he helped the team win the Class 4A Missouri championship. He was enrolled as a junior that year, but in November of 1997 Pujols was awarded another year of eligibility, which let him re-enroll as a junior for the ’97-’98 academic year.

Fort Osage principal Steve Scott said, “When he moved here last year, he was able to get his school work done, but he had so much trouble with the language that it really posed some problems.” Fort Osage activities director Bill Gray said Pujols “just wasn’t grasping the language. Plus, he didn’t have the credits to graduate” in 1998.

People had already tabbed him as a high pick in the ’98 draft if he’d graduated on schedule (USA Today gave him honorable mention in its All-USA baseball rankings for ’97). Principal Scott said, “That’s what impresses me about the situation. Albert could have gotten a general diploma and been drafted and probably made a lot of money, but he chose to spend the extra time in school to get a quality education.”

That summer of 1997, playing about a 60-game season for the Hi-Boy Drive In/Post 340 American Legion team, Pujols had 29 homers and 119 RBIs. When he played in the Wood Bat Invitational that July, his manager, Gary Stone, quipped: “I think he’d have power even if he used a toothpick.”

Ahead of the spring ‘98 baseball season, an Independence Examiner columnist cited Pujols as “an awesome baseball specimen” whose “talent—as well as his home-run power—is prodigious.” He added, “Do yourself a favor and go watch him play as much as you can. That way you can say you saw him before he was a major leaguer.” There was no hesitation locally about Pujols’ abilities, even though he’d played just a single year in Missouri.

Fort Osage didn’t do as well in 1998, losing in the district playoffs, but Pujols had a .660 batting average, setting an area record, and 26 walks, 18 of them intentional. After the season, Tampa Bay Devil Rays scout Fernando Arango said,

He has so much raw talent and ability. We were working with him on his footwork. That’s one reason some of his throws are off-line, but he has such a strong arm and he really hits with a lot of power. He could become an outstanding player.

In the American Legion season that summer, Pujols surpassed his 1997 performance. In June of ’98, Dick Puhr of the Examiner told the tale of a deep grand slam homer he hit at venerable Crysler Stadium in Independence one Monday night:

The blast down the left-field line was higher than the light standards and sailed, not only over the fence, but the railroad tracks and landed in a mulberry bush. ‘It was better than the one I hit last year at Hidden Valley,’ Pujols said, referring to his legendary blast last year that cleared the scoreboard and crossed the road behind the fence, traveling an estimated 450 feet at the Blue Springs park.

Post 340 manager Stone added: “It’s the farthest and hardest I’ve seen a baseball hit here.”

That summer, Independence Post 21 pitcher Brian Moeller said, “I threw him a ball on the fists, and he hit it to dead center field at Crysler Stadium. He hit it off the handle and drove it that far. You throw him the ball outside and he hits it 470 feet to the opposite field. You just can’t pitch him and find a weakness.”

He had 35 homers and 124 RBIs in that 1998 American Legion season, hitting .593 and, of course, winning player of the year honors from the Independence Examiner. In January 1999, he left Fort Osage with enough credits to graduate as an English as Second Language student and enrolled at Maple Woods Community College, in Kansas City.

Maple Woods athletic director Richard Guymon said, “I think he will get a lot more scouts to look at him and some scouts will see him that have not seen him before, both collegiate and big league. This will give him a much higher pick than if he just came out of high school.”

Pujols hit a grand slam off Mark Buehrle and turned an unassisted triple play, still playing shortstop, in his first game at Maple Woods. That May, the Independence Examiner updated its readers on Pujols, who was hitting .461 with 17 homers and 60 RBIs in 34 games. (He wound up hitting .461 for the year, with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs.)

Maple Woods coach Marty Kilgore:

He’s the best hitter I’ve coached or seen. But what impresses me most about Albert is his work ethic. A lot of coaches in the area told me he didn’t have good work habits and that he was moody. I’ve seen just the opposite. He’s the first player at practice, the last to leave, and when practice is over, he’s heading over to the batting cage to take some more swings.

Kilgore said Pujols was likely to get picked in the first three rounds of the June 1999 draft: “All the scouts like what they see. What’s not to like?”

It didn’t happen, of course, and I don’t know why a guy who was so celebrated in the local media slipped so far. But the Kansas City Star reported on July 15, 1999:

Albert Pujols, a baseball player at Maple Woods Community College, recently was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 13th round of the first-year free-agent draft.

Pujols, 19 and a former player at Fort Osage High School, might return to Maple Woods in the fall if the Cardinals don’t sweeten their initial contract offer. ‘I was really excited about getting drafted. It all depends on what the Cardinals want to do.’

Pujols is playing this summer in the Jayhawk League in Hays, Kan.

Pujols made the NJCAA all-region team as a shortstop last spring and led the Centaurs to within one game of a return trip to the NJCAA World Series.

After the Hays Larks’ season ended, Pujols signed with the Cardinals for $60,000 (they’d offered him $10,000 in June), and he began his pro career later in 1999, in the Arizona Fall League, learning to play third base and hitting .327 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 26 games. After he tore through the minors in 2000 (his first at-bat, for Peoria, was a double off Josh Beckett), the Cardinals, upset with Fernando Tatis’ play after signing him to a four-year, $14 million contract before the 2000 season began, traded Tatis to Montreal, clearing the way for Pujols to jump into the spotlight in 2001.

As for the question of why he fell to the 13th round; well, in 2006, Red Sox scout Ernie Jacobs said:

First of all, his body wasn’t great back then. Plus, people weren’t sure how old the guy was. You assumed what he told you was true, but he wasn’t a great body, and his swing was a little long. I think what happened was, this was my first full year as a scout, and Albert didn’t make the airplane talk (from fly-in cross-checking scouts). There were a couple of scouts who liked him, who thought he could go high, but there were a lot that didn’t.

In 2003, with Pujols already established as a major star, Sports Illustrated’s Mike Fish took a look at him. He quoted Kilgore, the Maple Woods coach, saying this about the 1999 draft:

They don’t know what the hell they’re doing here in the Midwest as far as drafting. There are some idiots here that think they know the game. It is damn ridiculous—13th round. This guy’s not getting paid money that some got that haven’t even stepped on the damn (major league) field yet. I had scouts come to me the next year after the draft and tell me they didn’t turn him in (as a guy worth drafting). You got damn poor scouting, that is how you explain it. You have 100 guys who do their job and know what they’re doing and another 200 scouting each other.

I wasn’t around Independence in the late ’90s, and don’t know the people who were, so all I have to go on is the spotty newspaper reports on Pujols at the time. Apparently he was pretty clumsy at shortstop, and maybe scouts saw him as a big body whose flawed swing would get exposed at the professional level. It may be the same misdiagnosis that got David Ortiz traded by the Mariners in 1996 and then discarded by the Twins after the 2002 season.

I haven’t seen pictures or video of Pujols in high school, but he was generating enormous amounts of power from that flawed swing and dominating his peers. Considering that, it’s not so much of a surprise that he was able to clear the minors in a single season and emerge as an MVP candidate in his rookie year.

I’ll close by quoting comments from the Examiner’s Bill Althaus at the start of the 2001 season that confirm Pujols was a local legend before he even got to St. Louis:

The first time I saw Albert Pujols, I thought to myself, ‘What’s that man doing out there with those kids?’ . . . He had a Mark McGwire body, and he was a junior in high school. When he hit the ball, it made a sound that high school players aren’t supposed to make.

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Comments

  1. Lou Schuler said...

    I have family in the K.C. area, and visit there every year. One time I got into a long conversation with a hotel manager who told me he umpired quite a few of Albert’s game in the late ‘90s—both high school and American Legion, IIRC. He said he knew the scouts, coaches, and the other players, and he swears by this: He and everybody he knew was convinced Pujols wasn’t really a teenager.

    According to this guy, the consensus in K.C. by 1999 was that Pujols was an adult who, for whatever reasons, chose to play baseball against kids.

    The fact he was bottom-heavy, balding, and in a relationship with an older woman who had a special-needs child may have contributed to that impression as well.

  2. Tom Binger said...

    Thanks for the excellent article.  The question of Pujols’ real age has long intrigued me.  Does anyone know how credibly his January 16, 1980 birthdate has been established?

  3. heyzeus said...

    Even if Pujols was a few years older than advertised (a point I don’t concede), what difference does it make?  He’s been the best hitter in baseball for 10 consecutive years now, whether he’s currently 30 or 40.

  4. Adam B said...

    His age will matter to whoever may be considering giving him a 8-10 year deal in about 18 months. It probably matters a lot to the Cards as they think about an extension, too.

  5. Tom Binger said...

    Age is a critical issue when evaluating players for the draft (an issue this particular article illuminates for us), when evaluating minor league performance, when trying to place Pujols’ accomplishments into a historical perspective, and, as Adam points out, when signing him to a contract.

    As acknowledged, Pujols has been the best hitter in baseball for many years.  He has an excellent chance of putting up career numbers that are among the greatest in history.  It is impossible, however, to accurately project his future numbers without knowing how old he is.  It is also quite valuable to know at what age he has accomplished what he has thus far.

  6. JLK said...

    “…the Cardinals, upset with Fernando Tatis’ play after signing him to a four-year, $14 million contract before the 2000 season began, traded Tatis to Montreal, clearing the way for Pujols to jump into the spotlight in 2001.”

    That’s giving the Cardinals (and Tony LaRussa) a little too much credit.  There were no plans to add Pujols to the major league roster going into 2001.  He came into spring training and tore the cover off the ball, but LaRussa was still adamant that he needed more seasoning in AAA.  Pujols only made the cut because an injury to ‘established veteran’ Bobby Bonilla(!) opened a roster spot.

  7. josh said...

    can’t talk about pujols without somebody bringing up his age. it’s not like the guy was living in crippling poverty in the DR and he fudged his age to sign a big major league contract, ala miguel tejada or esmailyn gonzalez.  from what i understand, his family was fairly middle-class by dominican standards. he emigrated, attended a high school, a junior college and was drafted.  not even to mention the crackdown on foreign birth certificates after 9/11 and his recent american citizenship status, you would think SOMEBODY would have found a discrepancy, if there was one. unless it’s an mlb/u.s. gov’t conspiracy.

    until proof comes out more convincing than “he just looks older”, there is no credence to the assertion he lied about his age. it takes a rare physical specimen to be an even mediocre minor league baseball player…maybe that his body was so advanced physically at a young age played a big role in being one of the greatest hitters ever.

  8. Toffer said...

    josh and heyzeus – the whole point of this article and the age discussion is because people are wondering why he wasn’t drafted higher than the 13th round in 1999. That’s why. I don’t think anyone here is worried about his age as far as it affecting any future contracts. As has been stated Pujols has passed more than enough legal hurdles to believe that his age is real.

  9. josh said...

    toffer, i wasn’t responding to the article, but rather the 10 previous comments regarding pujols’s age. there doesn’t seem to be any one reason why he wasn’t drafted higher. i wonder how many high school or juco player put up those kind of eye-popping numbers but still arent considered major league material.

  10. Toffer said...

    I think the first comment perfectly explains why:

    “the scouts, coaches, and the other players, and he swears by this: He and everybody he knew was convinced Pujols wasn’t really a teenager.

    According to this guy, the consensus in K.C. by 1999 was that Pujols was an adult who, for whatever reasons, chose to play baseball against kids.

    The fact he was bottom-heavy, balding, and in a relationship with an older woman who had a special-needs child may have contributed to that impression as well.”

    Danny Almonte looked pretty impressive in his LLWS appearance as well until people learned he was playing against children three years younger than himself.

  11. heyzeus said...

    Adam and Tom, you are correct in stating that Pujols’ “actual age” matters a great deal to teams that are considering giving him a 10 year deal now, at age 30.

    But your reasoning also matches that of the scouts who encouraged their teams to pass on Pujols in the draft.  As the Red Sox’ scout said, people weren’t sure how old he was, and they passed.  With a talent as fully realized as Pujols’, perhaps living with some lingering concerns about whether he was 19 or actually in his early 20s at the time would have been a better strategy than taking him off their draft board.

  12. Northern Rebel said...

    Can you imagine what today’s scouts would have said about Ted Williams’ body, when he was in high school?

    “Doesn’t have to leave the field during rain delays. No chance of getting wet!”

  13. gmh said...

    Dustin Pedroia was going bald while he was attending Arizona State University.  And he hit .384 over his career there, which is pretty sick considering the competition.  He was so good that Ian Kinsler had to transfer to Missouri to get playing time.  Pedroia was a man playing against boys, albeit larger boys than Pedroia.

    I guess that proves Dustin Pedroia lied about his age too.

  14. phil said...

    great article, appreciate it.

    He did go attend US high school, had english speaking problems(as many do) but is fine now, and it looks like a scouting miscue was the reason for slipping.  But really, what about the Kansas City Royals?  They missed horribly more than 12 rounds on a player in their own backyard.  That’s bad scouting.

    I liked the quote about 200 scouts scouting other scouts, makes sense.  But if you missed him on the nights he was hitting moonshots maybe that was their only chance to see him.

    As to his age he could be 2 years older, but he seems to have the desire to keep playing, so i don’t know why the cardinals would be worried about a 10 year deal.  even if he doesnt finish it he will have made them many times more than what they actually pay him. 

    What about Mike Stanton?  or Miggy Cabrera as comparable to Pujols?

  15. Arne said...

    Thanks for all the responses/praise. As I say in the article, I don’t have any special insights on why everybody overlooked Pujols in the draft, much less whether he’s 30, 31, 32, etc. One thought I’ve had is that Pujols was dominant for two high school seasons, two American Legion seasons, and a JUCO season, all while playing in a pretty large urban area. He wasn’t some raw, unproven talent from the Caribbean. There was at least some hype around him-the quotes about his legendary blasts-and K.C. or St. Louis should have picked him in an early round based just on that and the sheer numbers.

  16. Game Ball said...

    Correction to your timeline—Pujols played for the Arizona Fall League in 2000 (not 1999), on the heels of his minor league campaign.

    Pujols was elected to the AFL Hall of Fame in 2004 and his number 36 retired in 2007.

  17. Adam said...

    I had the opportunity to play against Pujols in High School, and I will say as a 16 year old looking at someone who was suppose to be 17, there were obvious doubts in my mind.  He was a man even then in ‘98.  He hit a ball so hard with an aluminum bat it flew over the fence and over the paking lot, and landed on the high school!  It wasn’t fair.  As far as Pujols goes, he is one of the greatest hitters, and he is a Great Man, his age may still be in question though.

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