A sports training facility is nestled into the corner of the Maple Woods Community College campus. Some refer to it as The House That Albert Pujols Built, but if you repeat that phrase to Pujols, he’ll quickly point out he was long gone before the building was constructed.
Inside there are batting cages from wall to wall, separated only by thin, black netting. A banner hangs from the ceiling representing some of the Monarchs’ finest years as a baseball program.
Pujols made his annual return Friday to the house, appearing for the Millhouse Baseball Pujols Hitting Clinic, a $195, three-hour hitting lesson for kids 6- to 18-years-old.
Although he spent only one year with the Maple Woods program, it was a memorable one. He batted for a .466 average, belted 22 home runs and drove in 76 runs, and he needed only 193 at-bats to do it. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Pujols in the 13th round shortly after the season.
“It’s important for me to be back,” said Pujols, entering his second season with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “It doesn’t matter where I play now. I think getting the opportunity to come back is important.”
There were some special moments at Maple Woods, sure, but those have now taken a back seat to a professional career that includes three National League MVP awards and a pair of World Series championships.
Still, this campus marked the beginnings of that career — even if the memories continue to fade for Pujols, who also attended Fort Osage High School.
“When I’m here now, I don’t think about that much anymore,” Pujols said of his time with Fort Osage and Maple Woods. “I think after I go home, and when I’m driving home, I’ll think about it. But I just enjoy coming to Kansas City.”
After an hourlong autograph session, Pujols spent his time Friday teaching the mechanics and basic fundamentals of hitting to a group of about 60 kids — but much of his initial speech focused on the mental part of the game.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity for a professional athlete to come around and teach me how to hit or teach me how to play the game,” Pujols said. “I’m probably not the best teacher, but if I can share a little bit of what has helped me be successful so far, it might click.”
A new face to the Royals is a familiar one to Pujols.
The Royals acquired starting pitcher Ervin Santana from the Angels in October with plans to insert him into their revamped starting rotation.
After spending the 2012 season as Santana’s teammate, Pujols offered his opinion for the type of starting pitcher the Royals should expect this summer.
“He’s a really good guy that’s a really competitive pitcher,” Pujols said. “He never complains, and he never babies his arm. He was sore last year for a little bit, but he still pitched for us because he knew we needed him. He’s a great guy to have around.”
Pujols said he was also impressed with the Royals’ additions of pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
“Those are guys I faced last year, and they’re tough,” Pujols said. “It’s going to be a challenging series when you come to town.”
The Angels made a splash of their own, signing free agent Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million deal in the offseason.
“It’s a pretty scary lineup, better obviously than last year, but you still have to go out there and perform,” Pujols said. “Having (Rookie of the Year Mike) Trout for a full year, it’s going to be a good year. I just pray to God we can all stay healthy.”
Pujols had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in October, but he said his status for the regular season will be unaffected.
“I feel good,” he said. “Ready to go.”