Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports
(USA TODAY) - They had an age gap of 60 years, were born in different countries and played baseball in enormously different eras.
Still, Stan Musial and Albert Pujols were linked by baseball greatness. They both wore St. Louis Cardinals' uniforms, leading the proud organization to a combined seven World Series appearances and five titles, their talents landing one in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the other destined to join him.
They got to know one another during Pujols' 11 years with the Cardinals, visiting one another several times a year, frequently exchanging messages, and showing the respect and admiration for one another that made them almost family.
When Pujols looked at his phone Saturday afternoon and saw a text message from Brian Schwarze, Musial's grandson, his eyes filled with tears and his stomach knotted in anguish:
"It's Pops. I don't think he's going to make it.''
Pujols immediately called Schwarze, who was gathered around Musial with the rest of the family. They talked. They prayed. And Pujols made sure to convey the message one last time to Musial before he passed:
"I love you.''
Musial died two hours later at 92, and Sunday morning Pujols talked about one of the greatest men he's met, a man that forever will impact his life, the man known as The Man.
"It was such a sad day,'' Pujols told USA TODAY Sports, "but I am so blessed to have spent time with him the last 12 years. He blessed my life, and many, many lives in baseball during his career, and after his career. He touched so many lives. He means as much as Roberto Clemente does to Latin people. Thank God I had the opportunity to know him.
"I wish my kids had the opportunity to be around him, because that's how I want my kids to live their lives. I want them to be like Stan Musial.
"Not the baseball player. The person.
"That's the respect I have for that man.''
Pujols, perhaps the greatest Cardinals' player since Musial when he departed last winter to the Los Angeles Angels, savors the memories and time spent together. He last saw Musial a year ago, and although Musial was disappointed that Pujols chose the Angels over re-signing with the Cardinals, he congratulated him and thanked him for the way he represented the franchise.
When Pujols joined the Angels, the Angels put billboards around town calling Pujols, "El Hombre.'' Pujols was furious. There is only one baseball player that should be called The Man, Pujols said, and it was Musial. The billboards came down.
"What he did for the Cardinal organization is unbelievable,'' Pujols said. "There will never be anyone else wearing that Cardinal uniform who will be the face of the franchise. You can talk about his numbers, the 3,630 hits, the 24 All-Star games, the seven batting titles, but the man himself is what made him so great. What he did for his community, for his country. That's what made him so special.''
Pujols first heard about Musial when he was drafted by the Cardinals in 1999, and he began reading about him. He became mesmerized by his graciousness, and every time Musial entered the Cardinals' clubhouse, Pujols would race over, hug him, and then kiss his forehead.
"I don't care if it was six minutes before game time,'' said Pujols, a three-time MVP, "when he came into the room, I went over there to see him. He meant everything to me. He always will.''
Pujols, who has a huge picture of Musial in his favorite gym, and a blown-up picture of the two in the trophy case of his basement, still laughs at the time Musial picked up his bat a few summers ago. Musial picked it up, and couldn't believe how light the bat was, weighting 32½ ounces. Pujols, in a rare slump, asked Musial if he had any extra hits that he could magically put into the bat.
Musial laughed, and said, "Just see the ball, and hit the ball. You'll be just fine.''
Pujols went on a tear and won the National League's MVP award. One of the first congratulatory calls he received was from Musial, who compared him to Ted Williams and Willie Mays.
"I'll always remember that,'' Pujols said Sunday. "Always. Really, there's nothing I'll ever forget about that man. None of us will.
"He didn't get the exposure of a Willie Mays or Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, being in a small market. But he was very special to the fans in St. Louis, and Cardinals' Nation. We were blessed to have him around for this long.
"So I know it's a sad day, but it's also a day to celebrate his life.
"I know I always will.''