I found it a bit ironic to be sitting at Fort Osage High School's baseball field Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the most famous Indians alum slugged home runs No. 499 and 500 to become the third-youngest player in major league history to reach that milestone.
Only Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx and hall of shamer Alex Rodriguez reached the 500 home run plateau quicker than Albert Pujols, the greatest high school and major league player I have seen in my 32 years at The Examiner.
When he led Fort Osage to a state baseball championship in 1997, he was a man among the boys. You won't find his name in any Missouri State High School Activities Association record books because he walked so many times that he never really had the chance to show what he could do with the bat.
I remember a game against William Chrisman High School where Pujols crushed a home run at Crysler Stadium in his first at-bat and then walked his next three times at the plate.
“I'm not trying to get Albert Pujols a scholarship,” former Bears coach Dan Ogle, now the Chrisman activities director, said at the time, “I'm trying to win games.”
And opponents soon found out that it was just about impossible to beat the Indians when Pujols was swinging his lumber. In fact, Pujols got walked 55 times in 88 plate appearances while hitting .660 with eight home runs and 17 RBIs with Fort Osage in 1998 after hitting .449 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs in Fort Osage’s 1997 state championship season.
When he was enjoying three MVP seasons in St. Louis, I asked Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa about Phat Albert and his answer caught me off guard.
“He is the greatest player I have ever managed or managed against,” said La Russa, who also had managed Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, arguably the greatest leadoff man in the history of the big leagues – and the Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (long before any steroid allegations tarnished their careers). “There are times he is a man among the boys.”
While his 499th and 500th home runs were all the buzz Wednesday, he hit some prep home runs that folks still talk about throughout the country.
A few years ago, he was in an airport in Florida when he was approached by a young woman who told him she saw his 500-foot blast at Liberty High School.
“I think I hit it off her boyfriend or someone she knew,” Pujols said after appearing at a Millhouse Batting Clinic in Liberty four years ago. “It's funny, I'm in Florida and someone comes up to talk about a home run I hit in high school.”
He cleared the railroad tracks at Crysler Stadium and the scoreboard, road and shed behind the road at Hidden Valley Park – with a wood bat – in the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational, when he played for coach Gary Stone's Hi-Boy/Post 340 team.
“He did things you couldn't believe,” Stone once said. “It was such an honor to coach him and watch him play.”
When Pujols was a rookie with the Cardinals, he visited Crysler Stadium and sat in the dugout of his former Hi-Boy team.
“Pretty soon we ran out of baseballs,” Stone said, chuckling. “Everyone wanted Albert's autograph, and we ran out of balls.”
That season, following his first game against the Royals, he brought several dozen balls from the clubhouse and signed them for his friends, former teammates and Fort Osage and Hi-Boy players.
He never forgot his roots, and that's one reason he is still very special to me. My youngest son Sean used to feed the batting cage quarters as Pujols would work his swing as a high school player. Sean and Albert struck a casual friendship and Sean would always ask to tag along when I covered a Fort Osage game.
Pujols and Indians teammate and longtime friend Chris Francka invited 9-year-old Sean to eat with the Indians team after they won the state championship in Columbia. Sean rode the bus with the team, and when I arrived at Alexander's Steak House, there was Sean standing between his two favorite players.
They both sported mischievous grins, and I soon found out why. The players could select the size of their steak – which they cooked over an open grill – and they let Sean select a monster that could have fed the entire team.
After suffering through two injury-plagued seasons, Albert Pujols is back with a vengeance – which is bad news for Angels opponents and great news for his legion of fans in Eastern Jackson County.
If he retired today, he would be a first-year selection for the Hall of Fame, but more greatness awaits him. He is closing in on 3,000 hits, and I believe he will top 700 home runs. But those lofty stats aren't important to him.
He just wants to win – just like he did when he played in Eastern Jackson County.
Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at 350-6333 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC