White Sox leader José Abreu calls Tony La Russa 'a blessing to be around'

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Vinnie Duber
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Abreu: 'It is a blessing to be around someone like Tony' originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The concerns about whether the White Sox surprise offseason hiring of Tony La Russa would work have largely subsided.

Nearly every player that's been asked about how the new South Side skipper is running the show at spring training has responded with glowing reviews, the thought that he wouldn't be able to connect with a new generation of players — or that he'd blow up the team's clubhouse culture — after a decade out of the dugout has been debunked.

Though Tim Anderson's whole-hearted, "110-percent" backing of La Russa might have been the vote of confidence that eased any lingering doubts in the minds of any fans who were still warming up to La Russa's return, José Abreu — the team leader and reigning American League MVP — has showered La Russa with praise, too, perhaps making the strongest argument yet for why La Russa was not only a good hire but the right hire for these White Sox.

RELATED: Sox Mailbag: 'World Series or bust' time on the South Side

"I have to tell you something remarkable that I was talking with my wife (about) a few days ago," Abreu said Monday through team interpreter Billy Russo. "This year is my eighth year coming to spring training and being with the White Sox. This is the first year that I've been feeling really good and comfortable.

"I think it is because of the plan that Tony has. He knows the time that we, as a player, need to spend on the field. He knows when you need to rest. He knows how to take control of how you measure your work. The atmosphere that he has created along with the coaches has been outstanding. We're putting special emphasis on the little things. We're working on specific areas of the game that we need to in order to win games and to be a complete team.

"It has been remarkable, and I feel really happy because of that and I feel really happy to have him and be part of this team at this moment."

Abreu, of course, has been the loudest supporter of the White Sox rebuilding effort for years, so impressed with the talent he saw developing in the organization — and so comfortable with playing on the South Side — that he made business-school professors wince by declaring his intention to re-sign himself if the team didn't do so during his brief round of free agency in 2019.

Now, too, he again seems to have completely bought into the latest aspect of the White Sox plan: bringing in a new manager who knows what it takes to get a team to the promised land.

The three World Series rings on La Russa's fingers would be enough, in many cases, perhaps, to win over a clubhouse. But La Russa has not taken that approach, not made the assumption that his resume alone would win the respect of his new players. He's made that his No. 1 mission, to keep intact the culture and chemistry that Rick Renteria helped build as La Russa's predecessor and earn the respect of his players through his current actions, not his past ones.

"I just think continuing to foster a great environment in our clubhouse, our family environment. Mutual respect between everyone," White Sox ace Lucas Giolito said, asked Monday what has stood out the most about La Russa's arrival. "Tony being very open and honest about the things on his mind going into this season, we love that. That’s what we’re all about here, everyone respecting each other and being honest.

"And on the baseball side, the way our spring training has been ran, it’s been great. ... It’s been a great environment that he’s kind of created for us here."

So many of these young White Sox never experienced a managerial change before this offseason, only a few years into their careers with Renteria as the only big league skipper they'd ever known. Abreu is one of the outliers, of course. He arrived ahead of the 2014 season and played three years under Robin Ventura before the White Sox moved on to Renteria. Now, he's got his third manager in his White Sox career. And with so much on the line, all the rebuilding work he's been a part of every step of the way, you can't blame him for wanting to know what he was getting into.

Abreu has relayed a couple times now his pre-spring conversations with Albert Pujols, one of baseball's all-time great hitters, an Abreu friend and a longtime La Russa player during the pair's championship-winning years with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols assured Abreu he'd enjoy playing for La Russa. And Abreu's review of Pujols' advice upon arriving to White Sox camp?

"A few days (ago), Pujols called me," Abreu said last month. "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.'

"He’s right."

Abreu has only come to realize that more as the weeks have gone by. It's an important vote of confidence in La Russa from the clubhouse leader. But it's also a reflection of the work La Russa has done since he was hired, a confirmation of sorts that he's doing what he said he wanted to.

As the negative fan reactions flew around the internet in the wake of his hiring, La Russa knew the questions were valid, that he had much to prove. The regular season hasn't started yet, and in baseball, everyone's judged by the results. But La Russa has, to the players in the White Sox clubhouse, proven himself and answered the questions.

Need proof? Just ask the MVP.

"Albert told me how much Tony respects the game and how much Tony respects the players and the people around him, and he wasn't wrong. I vouch for that," Abreu said Monday. "It has been incredible to be with Tony, to be part of this team right now.

"If there's something else I can tell you, I'm just blessed to be here. Because it is a blessing to be around someone like Tony."

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