As Pujols nears 700 home runs, his first pro teammates reflect on what they saw 22 years ago – and are still watching now

By Rob Rains

They are now scattered across the country, having moved on with their lives after their years of playing baseball came to an end.

Two are coaching youth baseball. One is a minor league manager. One owns a construction company; another runs a window and door business. One works in commercial real estate.

What all six have in common, however, is that 22 years ago, they were in the same starting lineup as Albert Pujols the day he played his first professional game – and hit the first home run of his pro career.

On April 6, 2000, Pujols was the third baseman and cleanup hitter for the Class A Peoria Chiefs in their season-opening game against the Kane County Cougars in Geneva, Ill.

Those six players saw Pujols get the first hit of his career, a double off Josh Beckett, who also was making his professional debut. Later in the game, they can say they were there for Pujols’ home run, which gave the Chiefs a 4-3 victory.

One player in the lineup was Chris Duncan, who died from brain cancer in 2019. The other eight are still living, and was able to track down six of them to get their memories of what it was like to watch Pujols then, as his career was just beginning, and what it’s like to still be watching him today, from a distance, as Pujols arrives on the cusp of becoming only the fourth player in major-league history to reach 700 home runs.

Here are their memories:

Johnny Hernandez, left field

Like his teammates, Hernandez met Pujols in the instructional league in Jupiter, Fla., after the 1999 season. Pujols had been drafted in the 13th round that summer but didn’t sign until after the minor-league season had ended.

“He hit a bomb,” Hernandez remembers about the first time he saw Pujols. “That was the day it was kind of like, ‘This dude is special.’”

Hernandez had the same thought the next April, and he remembers being on base when Pujols hit his first homer. He had the same thought that entire season, and still thinks it’s true today.

“He kind of knew where he was going and he just went about his business a certain way,” Hernandez said. “He hit the ball different than anybody else. The separator was his mindset. He had something to prove. He competed for something bigger than what a lot of guys were competing for. The hunger was a little different.”

Hernandez recalled one day that summer when Mitchell Page, then the organization’s roving hitting instructor, was in town.

“I think Albert had a good day,” Hernandez said. “We would do these hitter’s meetings in the mornings. He said, ‘Hey tomorrow Albert’s going to run the meeting.’ We were like, ‘OK. Cool.’

“We were facing a kid on the Beloit Snappers. I forget his name, but he had a good changeup. Mitch was like, ‘OK Albert, tell us what we’re doing today.’ He said, ‘I’m going to scoot up in the  box, he’s going to throw me a changeup and I’m going to hit a home run.’ Mitch said, ‘OK baby that’s what we’re going to do.’

“Sure enough Albert comes up to bat, he scoots up in the box and the guy throws a changeup and Albert hits an absolute scud missile over the center field fence. It was one of the coolest things I had a chance to witness. Everybody was laughing, but at the same time we were saying, ‘Holy crap, this guy’s legit.’”

After the season ended, Hernandez said he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico when Pujols called him and told him he had been invited to the Cardinals’ major-league spring training camp in 2001.

“I said that was sick and he said, ‘I’m not coming back,’” Hernandez said. “I asked him what he meant, and he said, ‘I’m staying up there.’ … He never came down. The rest is history.”

While Pujols headed to the majors, Hernandez played in the Cardinals’ farm system until 2003, when he blew out his hamstring, which eventually led to his release. That prompted Hernandez to begin the next chapter of his life, enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where he served for five years, including a tour of duty in Iraq.

“Since my birthday was 9-11 I thought maybe me getting released was a sign to go serve,” Hernandez said.

For the last six years, Hernandez has been running a youth baseball organization, Service Baseball, north of Atlanta. He would love to get a job working in professional baseball if the right opportunity came about.

In the meantime, his major-league fix comes from watching Pujols and his home-run pursuit.

“His approach at the plate has always been the same,” Hernandez said. “He tries to stay toward the middle of the field and if you make a mistake he catches it out front. It’s really cool to see.”

Shawn Schumacher, catcher

The two biggest observations that have stuck with Schumacher about Puols all of these years were how big his forearms were, and how hard he worked.

“His forearms were as big as my calves,” Schumacher said, “and he really was a student of the game. He was just in constant study mode; not just studying the pitcher but studying his swing. He was in a constant mode of wanting to get better.

“If he was 3-of-3, great. If he was 0-of-3, tomorrow he was going to try to get better. No matter how well he was hitting, every day he came to the yard trying to get better.”

Schmacher said there were many days when the organization’s roving catching instructor, Dave Ricketts, was in town that he would have the catchers show up early for extra work.

“He would have us there at 11 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game,” Schumacher said. “He would work the dog snot out of the catchers. I just remember Albert was always there. He was always doing early work.

“We were complaining that we had to be there, and Albert was there voluntarily, even though he might have had several hits the night before. You couldn’t tell by looking at him if he was 3-of-3 or 0-of-3. He was the same all the time. He was going to come to the yard early, he was going to put his work in to try to get better and he was going to go play. The next day he did the same thing.”

Schumacher’s career only lasted a few years because of a broken leg he suffered in a collision at home plate – when he was the runner – while playing in the Arizona Fall League.

He returned to his hometown of Carthage, Texas, finished his college degree and started a construction company. A father of four and married to a school principal, Schumacher doesn’t have a lot of time to watch Pujols these days but he tries to keep updated on what he is doing.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Schumacher said. “When I do get to see him play now he doesn’t look a whole lot different than he did 22 years ago. That’s a long time to play a professional sport.”

Schumacher has no doubt it’s because of how hard Pujols worked.

“When you saw how successful he was and how hard he hit the ball, you wanted to hit like him,” Schumacher said. “There’s a lot of people who want to have that type of success but they’re not willing to put in the work that he put in.”

Travis Bailey, designated hitter  

In his capacity of working as a youth baseball coach, some of his players will occasionally ask Bailey about his playing career. Before long, somebody will figure out, thanks to the internet, that he and Pujols were once teammates.

That always provides Bailey with the perfect opening to talk about Pujols and what Bailey observed as he was closely watching him, often from the on-deck circle.

“The biggest thing I took away was his confidence,” Bailey said. “I’ve never seen another hitter like him. With a two-strike count, his demeanor didn’t change. His body language was exactly the same.

“Most people, you can see them change. You see them kind of fight off pitches and become a little defensive. For a guy who traditionally didn’t strike out much and hit for some phenomenal power, the confidence he had with two strikes was just uncanny.”

Bailey relies on that memory in talking to his players about their offensive approach.

“I tell them, ‘Let’s not get defensive with two strikes. Let’s have a great approach, trust our hands, trust our ability and let’s make the third one count,’” Bailey said. “He (Pujols) had a phenomenal approach with two strikes.”

Bailey became a teacher when his playing career ended, then got into coaching. He now runs a training facility and baseball organization near Atlanta, Georgia Octane, and had his first player drafted this summer, by the Red Sox.

Bailey was able to go to the Cardinals’ games in Atlanta this summer but did not get to see Pujols hit a home run.

“Following his career has kept me young,” Bailey said. “I’m 45 and it’s cool to see people still playing that I played with … I was joking about it the other day with some buddies that Albert was getting fastballs to hit back then because I was hitting behind him.

“It was an honor to play with somebody like that. He was always a hard worker and he was always a good teammate. Nobody was ever jealous of him. We were all happy for him … Nobody could have imagined he would hit 700 home runs, but we thought he would have a nice career.

“If for some reason he just gets to 699 I don’t think he’s going to sign a one-year deal just to get it. He doesn’t have to. His legacy is solidified.”

Ben Johnson, right field

Now in his third season as the manager of the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, part of Johnson’s job is to evaluate young talent.

As a teammate of Pujols 22 years ago, when he was just starting his own playing career, Johnson didn’t need experience to know Pujols was headed someplace special.

“At an early age he was just a special player,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can ever label somebody like that when you first see them in A ball. You can wish and you can dream but there’s just so much that goes into it.

“You’ve got to be lucky, you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to be good and you’ve got to get the opportunity.”

Johnson watched as all of those things happened for Pujols.

“All of that comes with work,” Johnson said. “When you are working like he does, you’re confident. He went out and did the work. When the opportunity came, he was ready to make the most of it.”

Johnson has caught himself on occasion, when he is watching a young player, thinking back to watching Pujols when his career was just getting started.

“I do notice when I see other young players do some of the things that Albert used to do, I identify it just because I’ve seen them do it at such a young age,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve taken with me. I’ve had it for more than 20 years now – things he could do that takes a really special young player to do – and you don’t see many people do. When you do see it, it’s like, ‘OK, yeah … Albert used to do that. Let’s keep an eye on this kid.’”

Johnson also remembers that when they were teammates in Peoria, Pujols proved that his athletic ability was not limited just to baseball.

“We used to go play hoops at the YMCA and Albert would cross you over and dunk on you,” Johnson said. “You had better watch out. He was a baller.”

Johnson is confident, however, that Pujols chose the right sport.

“He could just flat out hit,” Johnson said. “He was just better than everybody else.”

Johnson is able to monitor what Pujols is doing on a nightly basis easier than some of his former teammates because of his job in the organization. He is always watching what the big-league team is doing, because he knows it might, and often does, affect his roster.

What Johnson has seen this year, time and time again, is how Pujols has been able to deal with the external pressure as he continues to get closer to the 700 homer mark. The stage is not too big for him.

“I had the opportunity to play with Mike Piazza, and Mike made mention of those moments,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘You either live for those moments or you crumble in those moments.’ Albert’s one of those people who lives for those moments. He isn’t going to crumble.”

Damon Thames, shortstop

As much as Pujols has accomplished on the field during his career, what Thames has observed for the last two decades is all of his off-the-field achievements – which he considers even more impressive.

When Thames thinks back on the season they spent together, the success Pujols has had in both areas does not surprise him. He saw it first-hand.

“As much as Albert has done on the field, which is probably top 10 of all time, he’s done as much or more off the field,” Thames said. “To me that’s what’s important. I talk to my kids about it all the time.

“I tell them what type of person he was. The odds  of ever being a true professional athlete are slim to none to begin with, but anybody can be that type of person … the impact of how many lives he has touched with his foundation, all of the teammates he played with. That’s the stuff that lasts for a longer period that how long he’s played. That’s the part that I like.”

Thames could see that aspect of Pujols’ personality beginning that year in Peoria, just as his baseball ability was showing up at the same time.

“We had Bible studies together, and you could see he was growing as a person,” Thames said. “Even if he had never made it as a baseball player I still think he would have had a great impact because he was that type of person. You could tell where somebody was headed.

“You could see the experiences he had; he did have a concern, an empathy and compassion for helping other people. Did you think he could ever do it at this level? Nobody could have predicted that … He was just given a massive platform to do it on a much larger scale.”

Even though Thames nas not talked to Pujols in years, he is friends with Lance Berkman through his connection to Rice University, where he played. Thames lives in Houston and is involved in commercial real estate.

While helping out with the Rice program, he also has kept up with what Pujols has done since they were teammates.

“I think his mindset now is probably not that much different than it was then,” Thames said. “He knows what his identity is and it’s not really wrapped up in baseball or 700 home runs. He’s always been prepared and he’s confident in the gifts he has been given.

“If anybody can do it he can. We’ve gotten used to his heroics, even not really understanding how difficult a challenge it is. That’s just how good he’s always been. You just expect him to keep doing it.”

Thames has an 11-year-old son who plays baseball and two older daughters. Recently the family came across an old box that contained some baseball cards, including the 2000 Peoria team set.

“My kids were laughing at my cards,” Thames said. “I knew Albert was going to be in that set with a bunch of nobodies. My kids are more impressed by him.

“How can he do it at this age? I’m old, washed up and sore and I can’t imagine swinging a bat every night or running around the field … To have a little bit of a connection to him just makes it that much more fun.”

Cheyenne Janke, starting pitcher

As a pitcher, Janke has a little different perspective about what stood out to him when he was playing with Pujols.

It was the sound.

“The ball just had a different sound coming off the bat than from any other player,” Janke said. “As a pitcher you know that sound.

“When you hear that sound in batting practice you are like, ‘OK, I’ve got to be careful with this guy.’

“I just remember saying I was glad I have this guy as a teammate. Now, you think about how fortunate you were to have played alongside somebody like that. You learn so many things about the work ethic he had.”

Like many of his former teammates, Janke is helping coach his 11-year-old son’s baseball team. He uses Pujols’ success as a way to motivate those players.

“A lot of kids don’t realize that major-leaguers hit off a tee every day,” Janke said. “They think they are beyond that. The biggest takeaways from playing with him was his work ethic, his personality, his want, the drive he had to win.”

Janke, who also was able to throw to Yadier Molina in Double A in 2003 before his career ended, saw Pujols a few years later when he was living in Chicago.

“I told him I was proud of him and was rooting for him,” Janke said.

Back then, he didn’t realize that would still be the case more than a dozen years later. Janke is now living in Florida, where he is the co-owner of a window and door company.

“I’m pretty humble about my background but my son is at the age where he likes to tell everybody,” Janke said. “He’s proud. I get questions from the kids and I open up and talk about it. I think I actually got Pujols to ground out when I faced him in instructional league.

“To be the age he is, and still hitting home runs, it does amaze me in a way but it also doesn’t amaze me because I know the type of work he put in.

“At the end of that season in Peoria, when he got called up, he was packing his stuff and I told him, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t change a thing. Keep working hard.’

“I’m very happy for him and the career that he’s had. It’s hard to believe he’s still doing what he’s doing because I know how my body feels.”

Janke, and his son, like all of his former teammates will be paying close attention to the Cardinals’ games the rest of the season, primarily to see if Pujols can hit three more home runs.

They all share the same sentiment.

“I want to see it happen,” Janke said.

Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK-TV and Peoria Chiefs; box score courtesy of Peoria Journal-Star

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

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