On Major League Baseball’s Players’ Weekend his jersey would read, “Mad Hatter.”
“I was given that nickname when I was a little kid, from some friends on the street. Just a reference to the old fairy tale.”
Mad Hatter has called me “Big E” ever since I was 4, ever since the day I stubbed and bloodied my toe running down the sidewalk in front of his Lee’s Summit house in flip flops.
“C’mon inside, Big E, we’ll get that taken care of,” said Mad Hatter.
I haven’t run in flip flops since.
In the summer of 2001, I ran into Mad Hatter at a Royals game. I was single-digit weeks away from obtaining my master’s degree, had a newborn daughter, and was trying my best to juggle my last classes while planning for life post-graduation on precious little sleep. Thanks to the all-consuming nature of graduate studies, my baseball knowledge was at its lowest point in my life. (Confession: I sold a significant portion of my baseball card and autograph collection to help pay for school. There’s a part of me that still regrets that decision.) The only players for the Kansas City team I could identify were Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran.
As part of a job interview, my wife and I were in Kansas City and treated to the hottest ticket in town. The Royals were hosting the Cardinals and All-Star-Rookie-of-the-Year-Silver-Slugging Albert Pujols was the talk of the baseball world. In the top of the second, I bumped into Mad Hatter. Pujols was at the plate. With each pitch, conversation stopped briefly. A single to center and conversation resumed.
After moving to Missouri from New York, Albert Pujols attended Fort Osage High School in Independence. Mad Hatter was the Assistant Superintendent for the school district at the time. Part of his job was to check Pujols into the system.
“He came in with his dad. They were very warm and friendly people. He was lean, maybe 5’11” and 165 or 170 pounds or so.”
Because he’s been asked by opposing high school coaches so many times, he knows Pujols’ birthdate by heart — January 16, 1980. He also remembers the first time he saw Pujols taking batting practice, early in the morning before school started.
“The head coach, he’s a good friend, he called me and told me to get to the school. The assistant coach met me in the parking lot and I thought I was being set up for some kind of practical joke. Then the coach said, ‘Albert, it’s your turn.’ I’ve never seen a kid hit a ball so hard.”
The home runs Pujols hit in high school are legendary.
Like the home run against Liberty in the district finals. The ball cleared the 8-foot fence in left field that was 325-feet away from the plate and kept going, over the hill behind the fence and over the service road past the hill and finally landed, hitting the air conditioner unit of the service building.
Or the home run in Independence that sailed over the railroad tracks and bounced into the patio of a neighboring duplex.
Or the home runs he’d hit at Fort Osage that hit the roof of the house past the field at the school.
“Sometimes, he cleared the house.”
“Albert was a genuinely nice kid and humble. He never complained. He always said yes sir and no sir. I’m not sure he ever missed a day of school.”
Pujols went 3 – 5 in that interview game with 2 singles and a double. But, in the bottom of the 13th inning, Mike Sweeney hit a walk-off home run to complete the series sweep. I ended up getting the job.
Seventeen years later, that newborn baby is making choices about college and Mad Hatter’s in my neck of the woods. On a frosty morning, in a game of catch long overdue, Hatter and I threw knuckleballs that moved, even as the tips of our fingers tingled in the cold. And he asked me questions about Pujols.
“He’s got a career .302 batting average, with 633 home runs, and 3,082 hits. Should he retire?”
Albert Pujols is incredibly generous. He does not hoard his millions, but uses his wealth to make a tangible difference, both in the United States and the Dominican Republic. His legacy as a first-ballot hall of famer is guaranteed. If he is still having fun, keep on playing. The more he makes, the more good he can do in this world.
Mad Hatter’s a storyteller and I think my arm’s now in good enough shape to last through all of his stories — his Cooperstown stories and his decades of softball stories and his story about saving his money to buy his first glove. But Mad Hatter’s stories and presence are needed in KC, so we kept the storytelling short this time.
Albert, if you’re in Missouri over the next month and need a catch-partner, I’m more than willing.
Maybe I should put Big E on my Players’ Weekend jersey.