SAVANNAH — First a bishop, now an Angel. Special guests keep coming to Savannah’s only Catholic, all-male military high school.
Major League Baseball star Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels took batting practice at Benedictine Military School on Wednesday and Thursday, a month after the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah called upon the school’s baseball program to help him brush up on his pitching skills for an event.
Pujols didn’t need any help with his game but the Angels’ first baseman, widely considered to be one of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball history, was searching for a facility where he could conduct private workouts during a four-day vacation during the MLB All-Star break. Pujols chose Benedictine thanks to the help of Benedictine Military School alumni and friends, including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and former teammate Adam Wainwright, a native of nearby Brunswick.
“This is a great facility. I like it a lot,” Pujols, 34, a native of the Dominican Republic, said as he looked around from inside Benedictine’s batting cage. “We didn’t have facilities like this when I was in high school. We would go in the gym, push the bleachers to the side and hit right there on the floor. This is really nice.”
Pujols and his wife, Deidre, owner of Pujols Kitchen, which sells cookware products, were in Savannah from Monday until Thursday night so Deidre could film a television show with celebrity cook Paula Deen. Pujols arrived at Benedictine at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday and took batting practice for 45 minutes. He returned to the Seawright Drive school at 7:45 a.m. Thursday for a 30-minute hitting session.
“Albert is a very nice, outgoing guy but he’s particular about social media and, honestly, he was going to work,” said Stephen Crawford, a 2000 graduate of Benedictine who was instrumental in connecting Pujols with Benedictine. “It wasn’t a showcase (for the general public). He didn’t want to take four days off from work during the all-star break without swinging a bat.”
Benedictine’s batting cage was built and named in memory of Crawford’s father, Larry, who did not attend the school but loved Benedictine baseball. One of Crawford’s brothers, Tyler, graduated from Benedictine in 2006 and volunteers for the baseball program. Wednesday morning, Stephen drove to Benedictine as Pujols followed him in a rental car.
How Pujols, a two-time World Series champion and three-time National League MVP, ended up at Benedictine is similar to baseball’s version of the game around the horn. He called Wainwright, his former St. Louis teammate, and told him that he would be visiting Savannah and he wanted advice on where he could go for batting practice. Wainwright, who played high-school baseball for Glynn Academy, called Brandon Burnsed, a 2000 graduate of Benedictine who is a neurosurgeon in Mississippi. Wainwright played with Burnsed and Stephen Crawford during summer-league games.
“Brandon called me and gave me Adam’s number,” said Crawford, an operations manager for the Georgia Ports Authority. “He said Albert is looking for a place to hit. He said it probably won’t happen but if you get a call from a random number, answer it. This was on Monday night. And to keep it quiet. Tuesday goes by all day and I didn’t get a call. And Tuesday night, I’m sitting on the couch with my wife and kids getting ready to watch the all-star game and that’s when Albert called.”
After speaking with Pujols, Crawford called his brother, Tyler, and asked him to reach out to Benedictine baseball head coach Kevin Farmer, a 1992 Benedictine graduate. Farmer loved the idea.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to have a Major League Baseball player use our facilities at BC,” Farmer said.
When Pujols took batting practice Wednesday, awestruck members of Benedictine’s baseball team quietly studied the muscular 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander.
“It’s not every day that Albert Pujols comes and hits at your high school,” Benedictine baseball player Chase Marini said. “And you could actually learn stuff from him, too. Coach (Kevin) Farmer always preaches that when you’re hitting off a tee that you’re not just free-swinging. You’re working on backside (hitting) and that’s exactly what Pujols started off doing ...”
After hitting off a tee, Pujols introduced himself to Benedictine volunteer Brad Hutson, who sat behind a protective screen and threw pitches to Pujols during a short-toss session.
“He was very regimented in what he did, hitting balls up the middle, going to right field, then to left field,” Stephen Crawford said.
When Pujols finished, he posed for photographs with Benedictine’s players and coaches, and Farmer gave him a T-shirt and cap commemorating Benedictine’s 2014 GHSA Class AA baseball state championship. After Pujols left, per his request, everyone in attendance was instructed by Farmer to not publicly mention Pujols’ visit until after he departed Savannah. The Cadets kept their promise and refrained from mentioning it on social media for two days.
“Just a classy group of kids,” Stephen Crawford said Thursday after Pujols completed his second day of batting practice at Benedictine. “It speaks well for the BC community. I’m always proud to be a part of it. Albert told me today how much fun he had. He talked about how nice the facilities are. Albert’s a really strong Christian and he knew it was a Catholic school, a Christian school.”
Pujols said he enjoyed visiting Savannah and hopes to return.
“We ate at a place called the Pink House,” Pujols said, referring to The Olde Pink House restaurant on Abercorn Street. “We flew here Monday and got in about 6 p.m. My wife wanted to go sightseeing right away, but I was hungry so we went to go eat. Oh, man, it was wonderful.”