Is it hello or pitching? Photo stirs rumor

It was a very loaded, and controversial, public hug between prominent members of the NL Central's fiercest rivals. Bound to strike some of their teams' fans as jarring, Cardinals star Albert Pujols shared a brief bear hug with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry before St. Louis' 6-4 win over Chicago on Tuesday.

The photo has triggered wild speculation and a raft of conspiracy theories that the Cubs will be entering the sweepstakes to land Pujols in November, when the nine-time All-Star first baseman can officially become a free agent.

Hendry, shocked that the exchange made national news, has denied the media scuttlebutt, telling reporters, "He hugged me first. He's a lot bigger and stronger than me."

Baseball has tampering rules preventing any team officials from conversing with players from other teams about their future or contract status. Fines and suspensions have been levied against owners and executives in the past.

Hendry said he got to know Pujols through former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty and former pitcher Alan Benes, who threw for Hendry at Creighton and for the Cardinals.

"Albert and I had always had a good relationship," Hendry told ESPNChicago.com on Wednesday. "I think the world of him, and that has nothing to do with what type of baseball player he is. I have all the respect in the world for him, way beyond him being a great player, and he knows that."

Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the hug was much ado over nothing. It was just a greeting between two people who respect each other.

"At the end, it's not what you do on the field. It's what kind of person you are off the field. That's the kind of relationship you want to build with somebody you respect," Pujols told the Post-Dispatch. "He's on the other side. I'm on our side. I just think it's kind of ridiculous. Three writers came and talked to me about that and the contract. Are you serious? C'mon."

Major League Baseball has worked to discourage fraternization between members of rival organizations this spring, but it won't take issue with the friendly contact between Pujols and Hendry, because it took place during batting practice, a time when there are typically few fans in the park, sources say.

And according to sources, the Cardinals are not overly concerned with Hendry's hug with Pujols, who is eligible for free agency this fall. Hendry is well-liked and known as a gregarious person.

In his bid to shield himself from any accusation of tampering, Hendry stressed he and Pujols were merely trading batting-cage plesantries rather than discussing financial terms if (or when) that bidding process begins.

"I can't win," Hendry said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I like Albert. We've always gotten along. He's a great, great player. I admire the heck out of him. He plays the game the right way every day."

Information from ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney, ESPNChicago.com's Bruce Levine and The Associated Press was used in this report.