Prior to Sunday, when the White Sox played their first Cactus League game, the last time Tony La Russa was in a dugout as a big league manager, he was watching his St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 2011.
So it's only fitting that on La Russa's second gameday in his second go-round as the South Side skipper, one of those Cardinals was there to greet him.
Albert Pujols, now in the waning years of his Hall-of-Fame career as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, walked across the field in Tempe, Arizona, on Monday afternoon to greet his old manager with a big hug that lifted La Russa right off the grass.
The two chatted, as old friends do. Not only was Pujols there to welcome La Russa back to managing this spring, he'll be there again come Opening Day, the White Sox meeting his Halos on the first four days of the 2021 campaign.
Pujols, of course, is not a new name to White Sox fans, though. In addition to being one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, he's long been mentioned by José Abreu. The two are in one of baseball's elite clubs, two of three players — the other being the legendary Joe DiMaggio — to start their major league careers with four seasons of 25 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs.
Now, the two are in a couple other clubs together. Abreu joined Pujols as a major league MVP last year. And now they can both claim La Russa as their manager.
After La Russa was hired in a surprising move by the White Sox last fall, Abreu said he contacted Pujols, who spent 11 seasons with La Russa in St. Louis.
"When we hired him, I reached out to Pujols," Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo in November. "And Pujols just told me that he was a great manager, an outstanding person, a manager that I would like to play for. And I'm just looking for forward to it."
When Abreu made his delayed arrival at White Sox camp Saturday — after being kept away following a positive COVID-19 test — he was asked if Pujols was right.
"A few days ago, Pujols called me," Abreu said Saturday. "He said, 'I know you haven’t started your preparation with the team and haven’t had your first workout with Tony, but after your first day call me and let me know your impressions.'
"Today, and throughout all the conversations I’ve had with Tony, I can tell he cares about people. He cares about us and the team, and that is something that will be very important for us. It will unite us and make us stronger. And baseball? He’s a Hall of Famer.
"We’re glad he’s here with us. We can take advantage of his knowledge. He is going to put us in position to succeed. I’m just glad to be here, and I am glad he is here with us."
As fans were left apprehensive following the managerial switch, getting the assurance of Pujols helped the White Sox team leader approach the La Russa hiring with an open mind, even an excited one.
And already, La Russa is noticing things in Abreu that he became accustomed to seeing in Pujols.
"He deserved the MVP, not just for what he does to help the team with his glove and his bat, but the whole thing about making his teammates better, he does that," La Russa said Monday. "Again, I compare it to the guys that I watched on a daily basis — most recently Albert, (Yadier Molina), go back to the Oakland days, (White Sox legend Carlton Fisk) a long, long time ago — and he’s in that company.
"That’s why he and Albert are friends. They understand the responsibility, they embrace it."
Pujols helped lead La Russa's Cardinals to World Series wins in 2006 and 2011. Abreu's looking to lead La Russa's White Sox to a World Series in 2021.
Just another exclusive club the two could be in together.