Karaff believed in Pujols before anyone
by Tracy Ringolsby
DENVER—A year after becoming a victim of the Cardinals' reorganization of their scouting department, David Karaff was back at work, at the new Wal-Mart store in Hot Springs, Ark.
"When you are 62 and have had two kinds of jobs in your life, teaching and scouting, there's not a lot of options," Karaff said. "You just move on."
Karaff is gone, but not forgotten. He'll be remembered as long as Albert Pujols is around, turning hanging curveballs into home runs. Karaff was the guy who believed in Pujols back in June 1999, when the Cardinals made him their 13th-round draft choice, the 402nd player taken overall.
"There's going to be a lot of guys jumping on his bandwagon now," Jeff Scott, the Cardinals scouting director in 1999, said after Pujols was named the National League rookie of the year in 2001, "but the guy who deserves the credit, the guy who believed in Albert, was David Karaff.
"He wanted us to take him in the third round. I remember asking him, 'Where's he going to play?' David said, 'Don't worry. With his bat, they'll find a place for him.' "
There are 29 other teams that could find a place for him now.
Pujols made his professional debut in 2000, opening the season at low Class A Peoria and finishing it at Triple-A Memphis. He's been in the big leagues ever since.
A top candidate for this year's NL MVP award after hitting .331-46-123, he bounced from first to third to the outfield as a rookie in 2001, played third base after that, made the move to left field when the Cardinals acquired Scott Rolen from the Phillies in July of 2002, and then settled in at first base a year ago.
Pujols earned mixed reviews as an amateur. Baseball America ranked him (under the name Jose Pujols) in its preseason top 100 high school draft prospects in 1998, but he wasn't drafted that June. A native of the Dominican Republic, there were concerns about his legitimate age. He didn't graduate with his high school class in 1998 because of an English deficiency, but went back the next fall, took care of that requirement and enrolled at Maple Woods (Mo.) Community College at the semester, then played a pudgy shortstop. His family let it be known he was going to want $350,000 to sign.
"When we got to the 13th round, Albert's name was on one side of the board, and everybody else was on the other," said Clark Crist, who was the Midwest scouting supervisor for the Cardinals back then. "We talked about his bat, and Scotty decided we'd take him and watch him for a while before we decided what to offer him."
The decision finally came. Pujols agreed to terms with the Cardinals for $60,000 after spending the summer hitting .343-5-17 for the Hays Larks in the Jayhawk League.
"The thing he had was tremendous strength," Karaff said. "(Brother-in-law and Cardinals scout) Mike Roberts was my mentor and he always told me, 'Don't run away from power.'
"I always felt he could play third base. He had soft hands, and he had a (well-above-average) arm at that time. But most of all he had that bat. He was a heavy-legged shortstop and there were concerns about his big legs and butt, and what would happen. But I kept going back to that bat. Not only did he have that big-time power, but he never struck out. I kept that in the back of my mind. This was a guy with power who made contact. Even when his body got out front, he'd keep his hands back. And there was no transition for him from metal to wood bats."
The numbers tell that story. Pujols is the first player to hit at least .300-30-100 in each of his first four big league seasons. He's the third to have 500 RBIs that quickly, joining Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
News And Notes
• Owner Drayton McLane ordered a 15 percent across the board budget cut, which meant the Astros eliminated their part-time scouts at the amateur level, as well as big league scout Brandy Davis.
• Yes, the World Series champion Red Sox use stats to evaluate players. But when a team has a $128 million payroll, second only to the Yankees, please don't try to compare what the Red Sox have done to the success Billy Beane has had in keeping the low-budget Athletics in the playoff chase every season.
• Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla, who normally returns to his native Mexico for at least a month of play in the Mexican Pacific League, could skip it this winter. He's upset that Mexican officials are hesitant to put together a dream team for the Caribbean Series, which will be played in Mazatlan in February.
Tracy Ringolsby is the national baseball writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.