Magic Johnson was making his way to his seat through the bowels of Dodger Stadium on Friday when he ran into the newest member of the home team.
“Oh, man, here he is,” Johnson, a Dodgers co-owner, said.
The two men embraced.
“Keep doing your thing, baby,” Johnson said. “Great to have you here.”
Johnson introduced his wife, Cookie, and let her know.
“He’s been doing his thing,” Johnson said.
Albert Pujols, in full uniform, blushed. He’s known Johnson navigating similar spaces for years, but the interaction crystalized Pujols’ standing on a team loaded with stars coming off a championship season.
The 41-year-old first baseman, signed earlier this month to finish his 21st season on a minimum deal after the Angels unceremoniously released him, isn’t carrying the Dodgers to wins. He entered Sunday eight for 34 with two home runs in 36 plate appearances. He hit a two-run homer in an 11-6 loss to the Giants on Saturday.
But he wasn’t signed to fuel the offense. He’s a part-time starter who will primarily be used as a pinch-hitter. More importantly, he’s a future Hall of Famer attracting adulation across the organization, from ownership down to his peers.
“It means a lot to me,” Pujols said.
The Dodgers entered Sunday 8-3 since Pujols joined. They would’ve been 9-2 if Mike Tauchman didn’t rob Pujols of a walk-off home run Friday. Is his addition the reason?
“I don’t believe in that,” Pujols said with a laugh. “This team is good enough to win another championship with or without me so it doesn’t matter. I’m just blessed to have this opportunity to walk in here and, whenever I’m in the lineup, to try to contribute whatever I can.”
Players and manager Dave Roberts have gushed about Pujols since he arrived May 17. Will Smith, who chose Pujols as his favorite player for the Dodgers’ ring ceremony this season, said he’s peppered Pujols with questions. Justin Turner said the clubhouse energy has been different since his arrival. Mookie Betts said Pujols has brought joy and reminded him to enjoy the game.
Clayton Kershaw said teammates, in turn, don’t want to disappoint him.
“Everybody wants to play well around him, if that makes sense, because he carries himself the way he does and the stature that he has in the game,” Kershaw said. “So, I think everybody might feel like they want to do something around him, if that makes sense.”
Pujols and Kershaw reside in the stratosphere, future first-ballot Hall of Famers who will be remembered as one of the best, if not the best, of their generation in their respective departments. Pujols is 10-time All-Star and three-time National League MVP with 669 career home runs and 3,261 career hits. Kershaw, 33, is an eight-time All-Star, former NL MVP and three-time Cy Young Award winner.
The first hit Kershaw gave up in the majors was a double by Pujols in his debut in 2008. Off the field, they share a religious and charitable connection. They’ve contributed to the same organizations and directed help to the Dominican Republic, Pujols’ homeland. Pujols said he and Kershaw exchanged a few texts a season during their careers. He’d send Kershaw words of encouragement after his crushing postseason downfalls.
“We have a lot of things in common,” Pujols said.
Remarkably, Pujols is closer in age to Roberts than Kershaw. Roberts, 48, was on the Boston Red Sox in 2004 — a certain stolen base became a big deal — when they beat Pujols’ St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Pujols went on to win two championships in St. Louis before signing with the Angels after the 2011 season.
“Everyone is a younger player in regards to Albert,” Roberts said, “and he’s mentoring everyone. I’m learning from him.”
Class is in session every day. The tips come in the clubhouse, in the dugout and during batting practice, making Pujols’ presence off the diamond as important as whatever he produces in the batter’s box. It’s enough to make even Magic Johnson stop for a hug.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.