Borea – Albert Pujols’ 23-year professional baseball journey has him on the brink of 700 home Major League hits.
It all started with Peoria heads In the Midwest League, he made his first professional home game with him in his first professional game in 2000.
“Over the course of that season, you’ve been watching the player play and you can tell he’s going to be good,” said former Peoria Chiefs president and co-owner Rocky Funchen. “I don’t think anyone could say he would be good so quickly. But it was only a matter of time.
“Then in 2001, if Bobby Bonilla hadn’t been hurt, they wouldn’t have kept Albert in the beginning. Things could have gone differently.”
Instead, Pujols spent his only year as a minor in 2000, primarily with The Chiefs, then began his 22-year league career with St. Louis Cardinals in 2001. That included 11 All-Star Awards, six Silver Slugger Awards, three Player Picks, Rookie of the Year awards and a slew of other hardware that would send him to Cooperstown.
As the Cardinals headed to San Diego in late September this week, he made 698 home runs, on the verge of becoming the fourth time in MLB history to reach 700 in his career.
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April 6, 2000, Albert Pujols’ first home flight
The Pujols first appeared in the Kane County Peoria Chiefs’ opening day lineup—then an affiliate of the Florida Marlins—on April 6, 2000, in the Midwest Low League.
Pujols was the 42nd player in American baseball that season. He faced future Major League player Josh Pickett and tore up the first professional pitch he saw to double the RBI on third base.
In the sixth inning, with the match tied 1-1, Kane County’s comfortable left-hander sent Hector Manuel Henriquez. Pujols smashed two home runs to center right to advance 3-1 and his first professional jack.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was ready to play,” Pujols told the Journal Star after his debut as a pro. “On the field, I just tried to go with the field. He threw me a fast ball outside.”
It was a laser shot, then Peoria Chiefs announcer Ed Beach called it.
“His first home run was in an instant,” said Beach, now an assistant athletic director at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. “Albert’s home runs were like this. He drives the line at top speed. He hits balls that would hurt someone if he was in the way.”
Henriquez is somewhere in the world, perhaps without the idea that he abandoned Homer’s first pro in Pujols. briefly appeared in 2016 published a story about Clasico De Vitilla, Dominican Republic-style stickball tournament outside Yankee Stadium. He lived in Queens, New York, at the time.
As for the Pujols, the Cardinals quickly figured out what they had.
“He’s that kind of player,” Chiefs coach Tom Lawless told the Journal Star after the 4-3 win on opening day. “He’s going to have to take the (attack) burden for a while. I don’t know if that’s fair to him, but he’s going to have to do these things to revive the game of others.”
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The legend of Albert Pujols began in Peoria
The Chiefs won 63-74 in the Midwest League in the summer of 2000. Eliezer Alfonso, Chris Duncan, Coco Crisp, and Tim Lemon were all teammates.
So was Johnny Hernandez, the left-footed battingman for second place on opening day. He was at the base when the Pujols cleaning officer hit Homer’s first professional.
Hernandez told veteran baseball writer Rob Raines in Stlsportspage.com story This month. “He hit the ball differently than anyone else. The break was his mentality.”
Hernandez spoke of the time in 2000, when the Cardinal’s itinerant hit coach came to Peoria and let Pujols run the hit meet.
“We were having a baby on Beloit Snappers. I forgot his name, but he had a nice change,” Hernandez told Rains. ‘He (Albert) said, ‘I’m going to explore the box, he’ll throw me a change and I’ll hit the house. “
“Surely Albert came to hit, and he got off the crate and the guy threw a change and Albert fired a scud shot down over the fence of Central Square. It was one of the most wonderful things I had ever had the chance to watch. Everyone was laughing, but at the same time we were saying, ‘Holy crap,’ This guy is legitimate.”
‘There was a commotion’
Pujols hit .324 with 17 home runs and 84 RBIs in 109 games with the Chiefs in 2000 while making $1,000 a month.
“There was a buzz in the organization while he was in Peoria that he was going to be the next star,” Beach said. “The Cardinal actually had a third prospect at base that they liked better, Chris Kelly. But Albert did so well, they kept him third and moved Kelly to number one. Then Kelly injured his shoulder and they brought Chris Duncan to play first.
“That season, The Chiefs had a corner pitch from Pujols and Duncan. Then Bobby Bonilla got injured in 2001 and Albert put together the Cardinals. They couldn’t get him out of there after that.”
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Private Hall of Fame
Fonachen recalls that Pujols’ work ethic was unparalleled at Peoria, both on and off the field.
“I remember Albert as one of the toughest workers I’ve ever seen,” said Funchen. “He was the first on the court and first in the cage every day. I watched him work and couldn’t tell if he had hit four hits or four the night before. His intensity and focus were the same in both cases.
“This moved off the field. If you needed someone to show up in the community, Albert was the first to raise his hand, especially if he was a kid.”
Pujols wore the No. 21 for the leader in the 2000 season. No doubt he will one day be among the retirees on the outside fence at Dozer Park.
But it is already a place in Funchen’s mind.
“Albert and Greg Maddox are 1-2 in my President’s Hall of Fame,” said Funachine. “They were once-in-a-lifetime talents. We were lucky to see him here when it all started.”
Albert Pujols has a chance to become the fourth player in baseball history to join the MLB club of 700 Homers:
- 762 – Barry Bonds, reached the 700th position on September 17, 2004.
- 755 – Hank Aaron, hit the number 700 on July 21, 1973.
- 714 – Babe Ruth, hit the number 700 on July 14, 1934.
- 698 – Albert Pujols, 14 games remaining in the 2022 season.
Dave Eminian is a sports columnist for the Journal Star, covering men’s basketball for the Bradley, Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the sports column Cleve In The Eve for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.