Ringolsby: Last Laugh Belongs To Albert Pujols
Jeff Scott can’t help but laugh when he thinks back to that day in June 1999 when, as the scouting director of the Cardinals, he used the team’s 13th-round draft pick, the 402nd player selected that year, to announce on the conference call:
“The St. Louis Cardinals select Pujols, Albert, a third baseman from Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Missouri.”
Right after the Angels made shortstop Alfredo Amezega the 401st player taken and seconds before the Blue Jays selected righthander Marc Bluma, Scott called out the name of Pujols, who on May 5 became the 32nd player in major league history to collect 3,000 hits. He is just the fourth to collect both 3,000 hits and 600 home runs.
It is not that Pujols was an unknown.
“He is one of those guys people stop to watch when he comes to the plate,” Scott said. “That guy selling beer, he’s not pouring when Albert comes up. He’s watching, too.”
And old-time baseball folks still mutter, “How the heck did that guy get past us?”
Don’t ask Pujols. He doesn’t understand it.
On draft day he thought the Rays might take him in the second round. But no call came.
He was told by several scouts he would be taken somewhere in the first five rounds, but it didn’t happen. The Mets indicated an interest in drafting him in the ninth round, but his agent scared them off.
The Red Sox were ready to call his name in the 10th round but weren’t going to offer money for college, which Pujols felt was a necessity in case baseball didn’t work out.
So there he was when the Cardinals to make their selection in the 13th round. Scott made the call.
“I have guys to this day asking me how I could have taken him that late,” Scott said. “I just tell them, ‘Hey, we drafted him. That’s more than the other clubs did.’ ”
Scott said the Cardinals knew who he was. He had been seen by Cardinals area scout Dave Karaff, who lived in the Kansas City area; national crosschecker Mike Roberts, Karaff’s brother-in-law who also lived in the Kansas City area; and regional crosschecker Clark Crist.
“I want to say all three guys wrote Albert up the same way. They all put a 50 (overall future potential) on him,” Scott said, referring to an average grade on the 20-80 scouting scale.
“Obviously, he’s better than a 50, but that’s how they saw him. They never asked me to see him.”
Scott still remembers the conversation in the Cardinals’ draft room at the end of the 12th round.
“Mike is sitting next to me and leans over and goes, ‘There’s that Pujols boy we got (No. 1) on our third base list. He’s a pretty good bat. We maybe should take him next round.’
“He didn’t get drafted by anyone else, so we took him. Then I saw him after we drafted him, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ It took all summer to sign him.”
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The deal got done on Aug. 17, too late for Pujols to join a minor league affiliate. He received a $30,000 bonus and $30,000 for college, which was the stumbling block initially.
Pujols didn’t waste time establishing his pro credentials. In 2000 he blitzed through two Class A levels and joined Triple-A Memphis in time for their run to the Pacific Coast League title. He hit .367 in the PCL playoffs to claim MVP honors. The next spring he forced his way on to the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster.
“We brought Albert over from the minor league camp because Bobby Bonilla got hurt in spring training,” Scott said. “Bonilla was going to be our fourth or fifth outfielder and occasionally fill in at first base for (Mark) McGwire. He got hurt, and we brought Albert over.
“He played the outfield that first day and had two, three, four hits . . . (so) they brought him back the next day. The next thing you know, it’s the end of spring training and his name gets brought up. I don’t remember anybody pooh-poohing him breaking with the big league team. You saw him play a game or two and you knew he had big league ability.”
And he has proven that by putting up numbers that will earn him a plaque in Cooperstown, along with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who along with Alex Rodriguez are the only others to have crossed both the 3,000-hit and 600-home run thresholds.
Not bad for a guy who held out for $30,000 in college money because, “I told my wife I was going to play three years in the minors, and if I don’t make it, I’ll retire . . . But it just took me one year to prove people they were wrong.”