KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s crazy to think about now, with Albert Pujols’ surefire Hall of Fame career in its twilight, but he was never chosen first-team All-Metro during his two seasons at Fort Osage.
It’s not that Pujols wasn’t a dominant force.
As a sophomore in 1997, Pujols — whose high school coach, Dave Fry, called him “a gift from the baseball gods” in a 2012 interview with The Los Angeles Times — hit .449 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs, according to The Examiner.
He helped lead Fort Osage to a Missouri Class 4A state championship along with 1997 All-Metro Player of the Year Chris Francka, but Grandview’s Jay Bollinger got the first-team All-Metro nod at shortstop.
During his junior season, Pujols was even more of a monster at the plate, batting .660 with eight home runs and 17 RBIs, despite having only 33 official at-bats after getting walked 55 times.
Kansas City Star selectors blamed a penchant for errant throws in dropping Pujols to second team behind Liberty’s Ryan Stegall.
“He made a lot of errors at shortstop (more than 20 as a junior),” former Star sportswriter David Boyce said in a Oct. 4, 2002, column. “It was obvious he was a great hitter, a great talent. But he really struggled defensively.”
Stegall was a fine choice. He hit .474 with five home runs, 12 doubles and 20 RBIs as a senior, while going 8-0 with a 2.09 ERA on the mound en route to being the overall All-Metro Player of the Year in 1998.
Still, he didn’t go on to be — ya know — the Albert freaking Pujols.
Stegall can attest to Pujols’ prodigious power.
It was May 1997. Stegall was the ace for the Blue Jays’ baseball team, which was locked in a tense duel with Fort Osage as Pujols walked to the plate.
A folk legend was about to be born.
“The kid before him — nobody remembers that — Chris Francka hit a home run right before him, so I was just trying to come inside and throw as hard as I could, kind of back (Pujols) off the plate, maybe get an inside strike,” Stegall said.
Instead, Pujols turned on the pitch, launching it 450 to 500 feet — depending on who you ask — over the left-field fence, over a road behind the stadium, atop the two-story building and off an industrial air-conditioning unit.
“I just remember it was kind of slow motion for me, kind of coming up and pulling off the catcher’s mask,” said former Liberty catcher Shannon Blackburn, who was Stegall’s batterymate that day. “It seemed like it was in the air forever and kind of all slow motion.”
Blackburn continued, “Probably the most majestic shot I’ve ever seen… It (the pitch) was probably four inches inside off of the corner and he was able to somehow turn, barrel that up and the rest is kind of history. Hits it on top of the school.”
Stegall remembers the blast, but he also remembers that Liberty won the game 3-2.
Either way, it was hardly the only signature moment for Pujols at Fort Osage.
He famously sent a pitch over the train tracks at Crysler Stadium in Independence and launched a few baseballs foul into the surrounding neighborhood at Grandview High School.
Bollinger, who was pitching when Pujols smashed one of his monster moonshots foul into the backyards near East 130th Street and Winchester Avenue, vividly remembers the raw power.
“He turned on a fastball like it was a changeup almost, and put it in between the houses over there,” Bollinger said.
Pujols didn’t play his senior season at Fort Osage, graduating at semester instead and spending 1999 at Maple Woods Community College.
He smashed a grand slam off Mark Buehrle and had an unassisted triple play during his first junior college game, according to a Hardball Times article, finishing the season with a .422 average along with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs.
The St. Louis Cardinals picked Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 June Amateur Draft. He signed after finishing a summer season with the Hays Larks in the Jayhawk Collegiate League and within two years took the big leagues by storm.
Pujols has since become a 10-time All-Star, six-time Silver Slugger, three-time National League MVP and two-time Gold Glove winner.
He’s a near-certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Pujols won the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year and also led the majors in batting (.359) in 2003, home runs (47) in 2009, and runs scored five times (2003-05, 2009-10).
During 21 seasons, Pujols has gone on to crack the all-time top-15 all-time in games played (15th, 2,908), hits (13th, 3,269), runs scored (11th, 1,859), total bases (fourth, 5,988), doubles (fifth, 671), home runs (fifth, 672), RBIs (third, 2,125), extra-base hits (fourth, 1,359) and intentional walks (second, 313).
Along the way, he’s earned more than $344 million.
Of course, Stegall, who was an All-American at Mizzou and spent four seasons in the Astros’ minor-league system, never dreamed in 1998 that he was picked All-Metro ahead of an undeniable baseball legend.
“When you all called, it was honestly the first time I’ve probably thought about it in a long time,” said Stegall, who now is the head baseball coach at Liberty North. “That took me back 23 years. Just thinking about it today, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool,’ but I would probably switch places with him, if I had a chance. Holy cow, man, for what he’s done in his career, that’s pretty special.”
Years later, Bollinger still gets a kick out of being picked All-Metro ahead of Pujols, too.
“It’s wild when you look back at it and think about that,” Bollinger said. “Friends will give you a hard time about it, but we just kind of keep it playful and have fun with it. He’s had a great career and made the most out of an opportunity that he got.”
Pujols’ contemporaries, who remember a time before “Prince Albert” was “The Machine,” look back now with fondness and appreciation — even if some of their claims are met with incredulous stares from their children.
“I followed his career and then I ended up having a son of my own,” Blackburn said. “Telling him that your old man played with this guy, he’s like, ‘Sure, dad,’ but here we are today.”