Abreu's bond with Pujols deeper than stats
Veteran allayed rookie's concerns about language barrier when they met in spring
CHICAGO -- The meeting between Jose Abreu and Albert Pujols took place about six weeks ago in Arizona, when the White Sox and Angels met during Cactus League action.
Abreu was the new kid on the block, the quiet, driven free-agent acquisition from Cuba projected to do big things in the Majors before he had officially stepped to the plate. Abreu also is a true student of the game, and in this instance, the big rookie turned to one of Major League Baseball's all-time greatest hitters for some words of wisdom.
Pujols said the questions were about the league and things of that nature. From Pujols' depiction, Abreu was concerned about the English-Spanish language barrier. Although Abreu soon would become one of Pujols' rivals, the veteran was able to put the rookie's mind at ease.
"I told him, 'Hey, to play this game, you don't need to speak English,'" said Pujols, recently recounting their conversation. "'You play the game, you do what you have to do.'
"He feels like in some of the meetings, some of the guys were laughing at him. That never happened, but that's how he felt, that some of the guys were looking at him laughing and everything because of his English.
"I'm like, 'Trust me, I went through all that. Just relax. You know how to play this game. Don't try to do too much,'" Pujols said. "'You're going to love that field where you play, and you're going to love this league. Just be the best you can be and just be the hitter you can be. Go out there and try to do your best.'"
A bond has been forged between Pujols and Abreu beyond this Spring Training conversation.
While Pujols was reaching 500 career home runs and putting up impressive first-month numbers, Abreu was breaking March/April Major League home run and RBI rookie records previously held or shared by Pujols. Abreu's 10 homers and 32 RBIs lead the Majors in both categories entering play Thursday, and he sits at No. 1 in the American League with his .617 slugging percentage, 71 total bases and 19 extra-base hits.
Abreu's 10 homers set a club record for White Sox rookies in any month and are tied with Jim Thome (2006) for the second most in White Sox history in April. Abreu stands as the first player in Major League history with four four-plus-RBI performances in his first 28 career games, and he is on pace for 58 homers and 185 RBIs.
It was that brief conversation with Pujols, though, that seemingly helped put Abreu on the right path.
"When I hear something from somebody like that, telling me that it's going to be OK, you get strength from it," said Abreu through interpreter and White Sox manager of cultural development Lino Diaz. "Every day, you just get up and want to continue to work harder and harder. Everybody who is young or young and in this league, they would love to hear advice from somebody who has accomplished so much in baseball here."
"You can see he's a humble guy," said Pujols of Abreu. "And I can see how shy he was probably, because he's in an uncomfortable situation. But my goal is to try to help the Latin people, and I believe that at that time, it was meant for me to say something to him to make him comfortable."
New superlatives must be found to describe Abreu's on-field prowess. White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams watched Abreu's pre-signing showcase in the Dominican Republic and was so impressed with his work ethic and approach, he wanted to give Abreu a standing ovation.
But above Abreu's meticulous plan that he follows every day and the heroics represented by his opposite-field walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour, the first baseman and sometimes designated hitter has found a perfect fit on the South Side.
"Obviously there is a language barrier there, but one of the things that has impressed me is how much he has fit in," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn of Abreu, who is learning English. "He's joking around in there. He's interacting with his teammates or finding a way.
"He's always got a smile and is a high-energy guy who is focused on winning. You can read a lot about the tools and the scouting reports or see it with your eyes in a showcase. [Not] until you are around the guy do you really appreciate it."
In the negotiating process that resulted in Abreu's six-year, $68 million deal, Hahn reached out to White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez to get his read on the player. The message came back, per Hahn, as: "Sign him. He can hit fourth for us on Opening Day, and he's going to be awesome in the clubhouse."
Ramirez might have a future in talent assessment.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon compared Abreu to Miguel Cabrera with regard to his lineup impact. Detroit pitchers marveled at Abreu's homers on back-to-back nights over the center-field fence at Comerica Park.
White Sox players enjoy the man as much as the player.
"I've even got to hang with him a little bit," said White Sox pitcher John Danks of Abreu. "Those are interesting conversations, when we are trying to talk to each other in two different languages -- a lot of hand signals. He's a good guy, funny, and we all know he can hit."
"What he does is great, but who he is, it's almost better, because he appreciates the opportunity so much," said White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham of Abreu. "We want the best for him. He obviously wants the best for this team. It's a pretty cool combination."
All of this success began years ago in Cuba. It took even greater shape when Pujols met Abreu.
"Whether that helped him have the success that he had, I don't think so, because I think he's a good hitter," Pujols said. "In Spring Training, I told everybody he's going to be the [AL] Rookie of the Year [Award winner]. I know it's too early, but he hits the ball the other way, and he has a pretty good idea at the plate what he wants to do.
"Those are things that, as a hitter, you look at and appreciate. I'm glad he's off to a good start, because that took a lot of pressure off of him."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. MLB.com reporter Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.