When Albert Pujols received ovations for his return to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for the interleague visit by the Los Angeles Angels June 21-23, it was the first time the 11-year legendary Cardinal had been “home” since his departure after the 2011 World Series championship there.
As I was watching the surreal scene on TV when Pujols, an opposition player, got a rousing standing ovation for hitting a home run on Saturday afternoon against the Cardinals, I was reminded of a story I had heard of the big guy’s power hitting display right here in Creston against the Southwestern Community College baseball team in 1999.
Yep, 20 years ago the Dominican Republic native who went to high school at Fort Osage in the Kansas City area hit a bomb over the left field fence at SWCC’s home field. When the Spartans returned to the Kansas City area to play at Maple Woods Community College, Pujols hit two more homers in the doubleheader.
Bill Krejci was coaching the Spartans then, before becoming athletic director and being named age group coach for some USA Baseball teams that featured several future major leaguers. He had recruited Pujols as a sophomore shortstop for Fort Osage, but the 6-foot-3 slugger decided to stay closer to home at Maple Woods for his only collegiate season.
After the Angels’ series in St. Louis last month, I had a conversation with Krejci to recount that experience 20 years ago. The incredible part of it is that only one scout who was at that series in Maple Woods thought Pujols was worthy of drafting. Fortunately for me, as a St. Louis fan, that scout was Dave Karaff, then working for the Cardinals.
“We had a pitcher, Jeff Viles, that I thought was worthy of a chance at pro ball and I asked Karaff what he thought of him,” Krejci said. “He liked him, and Viles ended up getting drafted by the Cardinals and played three years in their organization after pitching at Northwest Louisiana and Rockhurst, near his Kansas City home.
“Then I asked what he thought about Pujols,” Krejci continued. “Most of the other scouts had left after the first game, to go somewhere else and look at other players. Karaff stayed. He loved Pujols’ offensive game and was trying to convince the organization to take a chance on him.”
“I like him,” Karaff told Krejci. “But, I’m the only one. Everyone else says he’s too heavy-legged for an infielder. He hits well, but they don’t think he’s good enough in the field.”
The Cardinals drafted Pujols in the 13th round and moved him to third base, where the 230-pound heavy hitter played one year of minor league ball in Peoria, Illinois. The next spring he made the big league club, was named National League Rookie of the Year, and a legend was born.
Pujols has more than 3,100 career hits, more than 640 home runs and more than 2,000 RBIs. He has a career batting average of .301, despite hitting under .240 this year as a 39-year-old. He’s still a slugger, on pace for 25 home runs and 86 RBIs this year.
Someday, when Pujols is giving his Hall of Fame induction speech, a piece of his history includes a stop in Creston, Iowa. The ball off his bat landed in those trees north of the left field fence. Athletic Director Doug North probably has a good idea, saying some kind of marker as a rock or something with an inscription should be placed out there.
After all, it’s not every day that a professional sports legend steps foot on that field. But, you never know who the next one might be!
It was sad to hear of the passing of retired Creston Superintendent Steve McDermott. He was one of the good guys in education I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in this job. He made Creston better.
It was the same collective spirit that worked so well when Bridgewater-Fontanelle and Greenfield were brought together as Nodaway Valley during his time there.
No matter how tough it was going for him during treatment cycles, he always greeted you with a smile and asked how you were doing. That’s a special person.
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