CHICAGO -- The next time you're driving by a baseball game and have a few minutes to spend, you might want to pull over the car and take a look. You never know what -- and specifically, who -- you might see.It doesn't matter if there are thousands of people
CHICAGO -- The next time you're driving by a baseball game and have a few minutes to spend, you might want to pull over the car and take a look. You never know what -- and specifically, who -- you might see.
It doesn't matter if there are thousands of people in the stands or only a few dozen. The latter was the case when Jefferson College faced Maple Woods Community College in a regional tournament game in 1999, and if you were one of those there you can brag about having witnessed the first time a 214-game winner faced a future Hall of Famer. Jose Pujols hit a long opposite-field homer off Mark Buehrle in the first inning, on a fastball if we can trust the memory of Dave Oster, who was Jefferson's coach. It would be the only hit Buehrle allowed to Pujols or anyone else on the Centaurs that day as his team rolled to a 9-1 victory.
Oster retired in 2006 as the winningest coach in school history, but he has since returned as an assistant. Buehrle was one of five future Major Leaguers he coached at Jeffco, as the school is known around the St. Louis area, and you can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about the White Sox retiring his No. 56 this weekend.
Oster can't recite every detail from the Pujols-Buehrle matchup, but he'll never forget the essence of it.
"He threw him a fastball, and he hit a right-center-field rifle shot,'' Oster said. "We got him out the rest of the day on changeups.''
How did Buehrle react when he gave up the homer?
"Probably just, 'Give me the ball back, so I can hurry up and pitch again,''' Oster said. "You know how he was.''
While Pujols would somehow last until the 13th round of the Draft the following month, he was already a minor legend around Kansas City, where he had moved when he was 16. When he was on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2001 for the Cardinals as a multiposition player (third base, left field, first base), I asked Buehrle if he'd played against him in junior college.
He confirmed he had, and offered a description I've never forgotten.
"A shortstop with a big butt who could really hit,'' Buehrle said.
Oster added to that by saying Pujols was a solid fielder up the middle.
"He played good defense, too,'' he said. "I remember him making a play in the hole between short and third. He speared it barehanded and threw in one motion. That was a pretty impressive play.''
Interviewed recently by MLB.com's Maria Guardado, Pujols easily recalled the matchup against Buehrle from the conference tournament.
"He pitched a great game against us,'' Pujols said. "We faced him the first round and he beat us, so we fell into the [losers] bracket.''
If Pujols remembers hitting that first-inning home run, he's gracious enough not to mention it. When you've hit 602 in the Major Leagues, it's likely you don't remember every one you hit for Maple Woods CC.
"I don't remember [what I did against him],'' Pujols said. "I think I got two or three hits off him. I hit well against him in college. Not so much as a professional.''
Pujols laughed and smiled.
"I've had the opportunity to spend time with him, and he's a great person,'' he said. "He could still be pitching right now, because he always kept himself in shape and worked really hard."
It's fitting Oster will be at Guaranteed Rate Field on Saturday for the ceremony honoring Buehrle. He played an important role in steering the skinny kid who was twice cut by his high school team to the White Sox.
Oster served as a bird dog scout for Nathan Durst, who was assigned to scout the Midwest for the White Sox. He gave him his top recommendation, which contributed to the White Sox selecting him in the 38th round of the 1998 Draft as what was called a "draft-and-follow.''
The rules at the time allowed teams to draft players after their first year at a junior college and control their rights while they pitched a second year for their school. Buehrle was already controlled by the White Sox when he faced Pujols and would sign immediately after Jefferson's season ended. He needed only 217 1/3 innings in the Minor Leagues before making his debut for the White Sox on July 16, 2000.
Pujols was right when he said he didn't do well against Buehrle as a pro. They were rarely in the same league at the same time, and Buehrle got only one start with Pujols in the lineup, late in his career. He handed him an 0-for-3 on two weak grounders in Toronto in 2014, retiring him twice on changeups and once on an 85-mph fastball.
Oster remembers one other time the two faced each other.
At Busch Stadium in the 2009 All-Star Game, with Pujols in his run of back-to-back MVP seasons, Buehrle told reporters he was going to pitch the Cardinals icon inside. He did exactly that, challenging him with four consecutive fastballs, ranging from 85 to 88 mph.
Pujols hit the last of those to first baseman Mark Teixeira, who flipped it to Buehrle for an easy (and highly enjoyable) out.
"He texted me later,'' Oster said. "He said that was for the home run he hit against us in the tournament.''
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.