By GENE SCHINZEL
The Hutchinson News
Doug Dreher has grown up around baseball, from playing at the University of Kansas to spending five years in independent leagues and even playing overseas.
In particular, the Hays native has grown up around the Hark Larks, spending five summers as a player and now serving as an assistant coach.
Ten summers ago, Dreher was the two-hole hitter in the Larks' lineup. The best player Dreher has ever been around batted right behind him. And from the first day of practice that summer, that fact already was crystallizing.
"You know how some guys hit the ball and it sounds different coming off the bat? That's how he was," Dreher said.
"He hit well early in the season, but he said, 'Wait until I get hot.' He got hot and everything he hit was off the wall or out."
That player was Albert Pujols, who spent the 1999 summer season playing third base for the Larks.
Pujols had played in the spring for Maple Woods, a community college in the Kansas City area. He hit .461 in his only college season and was taken in the 13th round of the draft that June by St. Louis.
"He wasn't happy about going that late," Dreher said. "He was expecting to go higher. Some team called and said they were going to take him in the third round but never took him."
Instead of signing a pro contract right away, he played with the Larks.
"They wanted him to get acclimated to a higher level of play," Larks coach Frank Leo said. "In the back of my mind, I kind of knew he was ready for pro ball."
Pujols soon would show he was made for the professional ranks. He spent just one season in the minors before winning National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2001.
But in 1999, there wasn't any buzz around the future superstar, who was 19 years old that summer.
Off the field, Leo and his family hosted Pujols. Leo said Deidre, who Pujols would marry fewer than six months later, made two trips to Hays that summer with her young daughter, Isabella. Pujols went on to adopt Isabella, and today the couple has three children.
"He was very kind with our family," Leo said. "I remember watching ESPN with him, we ate meals together. He was very polite, very personable. It was hard to believe where he was two years later."
When it came to his play on the field, Leo said Pujols, as he does today, hit the ball to all fields. He hit the ball to gaps and finished with 10 home runs and drove in 48 runs.
"Besides the ball jumping off his bat, the thing I remember most is his approach," Leo said. "What impressed me was how he handled himself. He held his own with older players. The other players would ask about his preparation at the plate. At a very young age, he understood what he needed to do as a hitter.
"He was very mature and very focused when he was here. The players around him learned a lot from him."
Dreher, who was 20 in 1999, said Pujols had a high baseball IQ back then. And Dreher remembered an at-bat that showed the kind of power Pujols had as a teenager.
The at-bat came during the regional tournament in El Dorado, and the teams were allowed to use aluminum bats.
"Infielders were playing 10 feet into the outfield," Dreher said. "He hit a home run that went over this shed in left field. The stadium went silent. I've never seen that. I was on first base, and the first baseman and I just looked at each other."
There has been plenty of long blasts by Pujols since then.
Now in his ninth Major League season, Pujols has hit 351 career home runs and has hit at least 32 every season. He's the active career leader in batting average (.334) and slugging percentage (.630). He's been named the National League Most Valuable Player in 2005 and 2008.
"I knew he was good, but I had no idea he'd be that good," Dreher said. "It's amazing how he's developed as a hitter and how big of a star he's become."
Leo agrees with that.
"I'd give up teaching and coaching and go into scouting if I could project what he's done," said Leo, who also is Hays High's baseball coach in the spring. "You knew he'd play at the Major League level. But to do what he's done, that's hard to tell. He was determined. He had the right temperament."
Both Dreher and Leo said Pujols hasn't forgotten his days in Hays. And as a baseball lifer, Leo said Pujols was part of a day he won't forget.
Last season, Leo and his wife, Barbara, went to St. Louis to a Cardinals game against the Houston Astros. The Leos had lunch with Pujols before the game and Frank stood on the Busch Stadium field as the Cardinals took batting practice.
One of Houston's stars, Lance Berkman, played for Leo in 1995 when Berkman helped carry the Larks to a second-place finish at the National Baseball Congress World Series. Berkman had dinner with the Leos after the game.
"That was baseball heaven for me. I told Barb that it doesn't get any better than this," Frank Leo said.
Berkman and Pujols were two of the best players to play for Leo on the Larks.
Berkman has hit more than 300 home runs and driven in more than 1,000 runs in the majors, while Pujols is threatening this season to become the first player in more than 40 years to win the triple crown.
Playing in his home stadium, Pujols was the main attraction during this week's All-Star Game festivities.
"You have to pinch yourself a lot of times when they talk about him being the best player in baseball, knowing that he played here," Leo said. "Albert is pretty special to us. It was a neat experience for our family."