Cards' pitching coach Duncan one of first to spot Fort Osage grad Albert Pujols' potential impact

Rick Hummel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Albert Pujols is leaving the Los Angeles Angels after being designated for assignment Thursday, but the former Fort Osage High Shcool star got his Hall of Fame career started with the St. Louis Cardinals.

ST. LOUIS — There were the three home runs at Texas in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series. There were the three homers in Wrigley Field to spark a dramatic comeback win in 2004. Three more homers in a game, capped by a walk-off against Cincinnati here in 2006.

And the ninth-inning, game-winning home run in Game 5 of the 2005 National League championship series in Houston that nearly knocked the engineer out of his cab as he piloted his train well above the left field wall in Houston's Minute Maid Park. And, of course, the home run before his once adoring fans in St. Louis that Albert Pujols hit in the only series he played here as a visitor in June 2019.

So many highlights. How do you choose one? "There's too many to pick," said Jose Oquendo, who was a Cardinals coach for Pujols' entire career in St. Louis from 2001-2011 and still is an instructor at the club's camp in Jupiter, Florida.

Pujols, a former Fort Osage High School star, was designated for assignment, soon to be released, by the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday, unless somebody trades for him or puts in a waiver claim that would require that club to pay the balance of his $30 million salary for this year. This is the final year of Pujols' 10-year, $240 million deal that he signed when he left the Cardinals after the 2011 season and, if he signed anywhere, the signing team would owe him only the prorated minimum salary of $570,000, with the Angels on the hook for the rest.

"I was very surprised," said former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, "especially after all he's accomplished in his career. It's just very unusual."

"It shocked me," said former Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I thought when that time came it would be handled ceremoniously. Maybe he wants to go somewhere else."

Jim Leyland, a consultant for the Cardinals in the early Pujols years and manager of several championship clubs, also said, "I was kind of surprised. I know he was only hitting .198. But he had five home runs in 80 at-bats. That's not bad. He was on pace to probably hit 30 home runs.

"You look at Pujols' first 10 years (with the Cardinals) and they're probably better than anybody in the history of the game, aren't they?" asked Leyland.

Pujols hit 445 homers, batted .328 and had an OPS of 1.037 for his 11 seasons with the Cardinals.

Angels executives, during an evening Zoom conference, said several times that Pujols wanted to play regularly and that wasn't going to be available to him in Anaheim.

Pujols has 667 home runs, fifth in history, and 2,112 runs batted in, which is third, and he has 3,253 hits. Ironically, on the day the Angels and Pujols cut ties, Willie Mays, whom Pujols recently passed in the home run rankings, celebrated his 90th birthday, making him the only living Hall of Famer in his 90s.

Also, ironically, Jon Jay, a former Cardinals World Series teammate of Pujols, replaced him on the roster.

It all started for Pujols on a late March night in Jupiter, Florida, in 2001 when the Cardinals' front office and coaching staff, including Leyland, gathered to discuss the club's opening-day roster.

"I'll never forget this as long as I live," Leyland said from Toledo, Ohio, where he was scouting minor league players as a consultant for the Detroit Tigers. "Pretty much, everybody said, 'No, don't take (Pujols) yet, probably send him down. But Dave Duncan said, 'I'd take him.'

"And Dunc explained himself by saying, 'This kid hasn't swung at a bad pitch all spring. He's ready,'" recalled Leyland.

"I'll be damned if the Cardinals didn't take him and he was ready. The rest is history.

"A lot of people might say, 'Oh, no. I said to take him.' But they didn't. That story's true. They might deny it, but trust me, it's true.

"Don't get me wrong. They loved him but thought he maybe was not ready yet."

Duncan, speaking from his home in Tucson, Arizona, laughed and said, "Any time I was asked my opinion, I gave it. I don't know much credibility they gave it."

The dilemma was solved when veteran Bobby Bonilla was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury and Pujols was added to the club.

"Well," said Jocketty Thursday from his home in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area. "He did have a hamstring."

Just how badly it was hurt was open to interpretation, Jocketty said, chuckling. "It was just very convenient."

But now that it's over with Pujols and the Angels, Leyland said, "I'm kind of a sentimental guy. But I don't get hung up when something like this happens. I feel bad about it in some ways. But how can you feel bad having to release a guy like Albert Pujols? He's been an MVP ... I don't know how many times (three)? He's been a World Series champion ... I don't know how many times (two)? He's one of the greatest players to ever play. He made a lot of money. His foundation's been great and he's thrilled a lot of people for a lot of years. How can you feel sad for him?

"Just sit back and enjoy the damn career. Hats off to Albert Pujols. I had to release Kirk Gibson, the first year I managed the Tigers. Somebody asked me if that bothered me. I said, 'Sure it bothered me, but it hurt me more to tell some 19-year-old kid in the minor leagues that he was never going to have a career.'"

Duncan said he hadn't realized that Pujols was the oldest player in the majors this year. "You remember when he started, they said, 'He's older than the age they've got him down for?" said Duncan.

"That would make him real old right now."

But Duncan said he never believed it. And Jocketty, who said he did check birth certificates and found nothing untoward, said, "Even if he was (older), he was a skilled athlete. I never thought that was true, first of all, and I really didn't know what difference it makes."

The ideal finish to this story is for Pujols to come back to St. Louis, even though he still has a 10-year personal services contract with the Angels when he retires.

Jocketty, still a consultant for Cincinnati, said, "Not that they need a fan boost, but it would be a great way for him to end his career."

Oquendo said, "If he wants to play, I think he still could play — DH or play first once in a while. It's too bad we don't have the DH. If we did, he'd be a good guy to have on our club, if it was the right fit for Mo (president of baseball operations John Mozeliak)."

Pujols has an admirer in manager Mike Shildt. "Clearly he's had a storied career, a legacy career almost like none other in this game," said Shildt. "And he's also a really, really smart guy. I have a lot of respect for him and his faith."

In the immediate picture, Jocketty wondered how the Angels "can find anybody that could contribute as much as he does, even with the numbers he has, with his leadership, his presence and everything else. That would be hard to replace, I would think," said Jocketty.

"You're talking about Albert Pujols."