NEW YORK -- This is a story about how the Red Sox could have had Albert Pujols, the best righthanded hitter on the planet, came within minutes of drafting him, then at the last second passed.
``They were pretty close," Pujols confirmed yesterday on the eve of the National League Championship Series between his St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets, which opens tonight in Shea Stadium.
This NLCS features the only player in major league history to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in his first six seasons in the big leagues. That would be Albert Pujols. Who could have belonged to the Red Sox. But they passed. At the last second.
``I remember [then-scouting director] Wayne Britton telling me a couple of years later, `Darn, we could have had Albert Pujols,' " said former Sox general manager Dan Duquette, reached yesterday by telephone. ``Ernie Jacobs was our scout, and liked him. That's what I know about Albert Pujols."
While you fetch a box of Kleenex, we'll introduce you to Ernie Jacobs.
``That was my guy," Jacobs said of Pujols. ``I should have had him."
In his past life, Jacobs was a homicide investigator for the Wichita (Kan.) Police Department, then he was assigned to the violent crimes and sex crimes unit. Among the cases he worked was that of the notorious BTK killer, Dennis Rader, who confessed to killing 10 women. ``When I got involved with it, it was already a `cold case,' " Jacobs said. ``He started killing women when I was a senior in high school."
In high school in Wichita, Jacobs was a shortstop, a good one with visions of playing in the big leagues. Then he fell in love and married Denise, who 30 years later remains his wife. ``That kind of threw me off that path," he said, ``but that's OK."
All those years he was working as a cop, he stayed close to baseball, coaching youth teams and college-age summer teams that competed in the ABC tournament in Wichita, one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country. That's where he met Danny Doyle, the legendary Red Sox scout who signed Jim Lonborg, Roger Clemens, and Ellis Burks. ``He was interested in a couple of my kids," Jacobs said. ``That's how I met him.
``Baseball scouting was something I always wanted to do, and Danny Doyle trained me."
Jacobs was a bird dog for the Sox, a part-time scout. Then he retired from the police force and was hired by the Sox as a full-time scout. The year was 1999. There was a kid playing junior college baseball at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City. In his first game, playing shortstop, he turned an unassisted triple play and hit a grand slam. His name was Albert Pujols. He had moved to the area from the Dominican Republic when he was 16, the youngest in a family of 11 children.
Jacobs liked him. Not all the scouts did.
``First of all," Jacobs said, ``his body wasn't great back then. Plus, people weren't sure how old the guy was. You assumed what he told you was true, but he wasn't a great body, and his swing was a little long.
``But he had big-time power, and you can't walk away from that kind of power. You do your homework, you study his aptitude, you figure you can fine-tune his swing and get his body better. His hands were very good for his size, and he had a good arm, playing shortstop."
Jacobs sent in good reports on Pujols to the home office, and urged them to send a cross-checker.
``I rang the bell all year, `Come see this kid,' " said Jacobs. ``Wayne didn't send anybody in. I think what happened was, this was my first full year as a scout, and Albert didn't make the airplane talk. There were a couple of scouts who liked him, who thought he could go high, but there were a lot that didn't."
``Airplane talk"? That's Jacobs's term for the cross-checkers, the veteran scouts, who fly in to look at the players recommended by the area guys.
``I won't say that I thought he'd be the player that he has become," Jacobs said, ``but I liked him in the third or fourth round. That's where I liked him."
The Red Sox, with their first pick in the 1999 draft, selected Rick Asadoorian, an outfielder from Whitinsville, Mass. They had six picks before the fourth round. Brad Baker. Casey Fossum. Mat Thompson. Rich Rundles. Antron Seiber . . .
Jacobs's phone rang before the start of the 10th round.
``They called and told me they were going to draft Albert for me," Jacobs said. ``But there were a couple of stipulations. First of all, can he play third base for Lowell? I told them, `Sure he can.' Then they said, `He's got to be a quick sign.' I said, `We may have a little issue.' I remember the kid saying he wanted to sign for $100,000, $150,000. I had a feeling that it wasn't going to take that, but it might drag out all summer."
Jacobs tried to reach Pujols by phone. Pujols's wife, Deidre, answered, saying Albert wasn't home. She called back an hour and a half later, he said, and said she still hadn't reached him. By then it was too late. ``They told me that they were going to pass if he wasn't a quick sign," Jacobs said. ``The Cardinals took him three rounds later, and the rest is history."
Pujols said yesterday that he'd heard from his agent that the Sox were willing to pay him $50,000 -- ``more than anybody else" -- but wouldn't pay the extra $30,000 or so for his education. Jacobs said he doesn't think it ever got that far.
The Cardinals, after an original offer of $10,000, signed him for $60,000. ``I think he was worth it, don't you?" Jacobs said.
Less than two years later, the Red Sox signed Manny Ramírez, a free agent, for $160 million. Ramírez's first season with the Red Sox was 2001, the same year Pujols broke into the big leagues and hit .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs. The Cardinals have been to the postseason in five of Pujols's six seasons. They made it to the World Series in 2004, when they were swept by the Red Sox.
In 2000, Jacobs's second full year as a scout, the Sox drafted one of his players on the 11th round, a senior shortstop out of Oklahoma City University, and signed him for $1,000. His name? Freddy Sanchez, who won the National League batting title for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season.
``I'm extremely tickled," Jacobs said. ``He's well-deserving."
But the thought of what might have been is never far away.
``I lost my Hall of Famer," said Jacobs, still scouting for the Sox, ``in my very first year."