Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The many misperceptions of Tony LaRussa

Tony LaRussa retired Monday, a surprise to almost everyone in baseball, especially since he always came across as one of those guys who they would have to rip the uniform off before they’d get him out of the dugout.

That’s one of a number of perceptions about LaRussa that I don’t believe were ever correct. The most important of them—and the one repeated most often—is that HE thought he was a genius. That myth came about because of George Will’s book, “Men at Work,” which portrayed LaRussa as some kind of baseball genius. I still remember bringing it up the first time I met LaRussa in 1992 during spring training and the way he reacted.

“I’m a baseball manager, period,” he said then. “If I have good players, I’ve got as good a chance to win as other guys—no better and, I hope, no worse. I appreciate George’s love for the game but I honestly wish the whole thing hadn’t come off the way it did.”

LaRussa could be difficult—his nickname in Oakland was, “The Load,” because dealing with him day in and day out could be so tough—but he really did absolutely love the game. I honestly think the reason he always talked to me, often at great length, in spite of his close friendship with Bob Knight, was because he thought I appreciated the game he loved.

He was, under the right circumstances, a GREAT interview because he almost always said something on a subject that no one else had said. He might sit slumped in his chair answering desultory questions about that night’s lineup, but if someone asked something that intrigued him, his eyes would light up and he’d be off.

This past summer I went to see him in Baltimore and told him I was planning to do a book next year on minor league baseball, spending the season bouncing around Triple-A looking for stories.

“No kidding, really?” he said. “That’s a great idea. Oh boy will you find stories there.” He started giving me names of people I should talk to and when his coaches came into the office for one reason or another he kept saying, “You gotta hear what John’s doing next year.”

Naturally I was flattered that he liked the idea. Beyond that though it reminded me that, for all the white noise that surrounds LaRussa whenever he’s in the spotlight, he truly loves baseball and loved being a part of baseball. That’s why I was surprised but not surprised when he decided to walk away.

I was surprised because I know he’ll miss it, especially the day-to-day preparation, the work trying to figure out ways to make good players great; decent players good and mediocre players decent. LaRussa got hurt early in his career (shoulder) and spent most of his time shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues, hitting .199 for his career. (Maybe that’s why he liked the Triple-A idea so much, he can relate).

When he realized he wasn’t going to get rich playing baseball he went to law school but never practiced because he ended up managing the White Sox in 1979 by the time he was 35. Everyone knows the rest: 33 seasons with three teams; three World Series title; six pennants; third most victories by a manager in history. Not bad for a guy who never won a case.

I wasn’t surprised because LaRussa’s smart enough to know he is NEVER going to match the last two months of this season and he has a chance to go out as a winner in a way very few people get the chance to go out. Plus, he’s got a lot of other things in his life, among them his work for Animal Rights, a cause he’s championed for many years.

I know there are some in my profession who found LaRussa difficult, who reveled in his failures (like game 5 of The World Series). I get that. Others will point to his blinders-on defense of Mark McGwire and they’ll be right. In that sense—to me anyway—LaRussa was no different than guys like Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Belichick: you stand up for your guys, no matter what. Sometimes when you do that you’re wrong and you look bad but you do it anyway.

I have a number of LaRussa memories but one stands out because to me, it personifies who he really was—and is.

In 1996 after he had taken the Cardinals job I went to a spring training game in St. Petersburg. I don’t even remember who the Cardinals played that day because, well, it was spring training. I spent about an hour with LaRussa before the game for a column, then sat in the stands with my pal Dave Scheiber, who worked then for The St. Petersburg Times, and watched the game.

In the ninth inning, John Mabry, who was playing first base for the Cardinals, made one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen, basically running up the tarpaulin, bouncing off it, reversing direction and then diving back the other way to make the catch. (the wind off the bay was swirling big-time).

I remember thinking how cool it was that in a meaningless March game I had just seen as good a play as I would ever see. The Cardinals ended up losing and I went to see LaRussa, largely because Scheiber needed to talk to some people in the clubhouse so I had a few minutes to kill. I had all I needed to write my column.

When I walked in to his office, LaRussa looked up at me and said nothing. He was studying something on his desk.

“How amazing was that play by Mabry?” I asked.

LaRussa looked up at me blankly. “Mabry?” he said. “Why do I care about Mabry? We just lost a f----- game.”

“A spring training game,” I said.

“They kept score didn’t they?” he said. I thought he was about to get angry at me for not understanding how pissed he was at losing—regardless of the time of year.

He put the papers down on his desk and rocked back in his chair. “Been watching baseball all my life I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better play,” he said. “Made the whole day worthwhile, didn’t it?”

That was LaRussa. He WAS pissed about losing the game. But when he thought about Mabry’s play for a moment, he realized he’d seen something special and he was able to enjoy it.

One last LaRussa note. When I was working on my first baseball book in 1992, I asked him once how badly the game would be damaged by another long work stoppage—which appeared inevitable then and came to be in 1994—and he smiled and said, “The game will be fine.”

I was surprised, so I asked him why he felt that way. He just shrugged and said, “Because in the end, the game is better than all of us.”

He was, of course, right. I’d add one addendum: the game was better because LaRussa was part of it.


A lot of people have been asking through e-mails and posts the last couple of weeks about the publication date of my new book. The book is called, “One-on-One—Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game.” It is a professional memoir, keyed to the 25th anniversary of ‘A Season on the Brink.’ It’s more personal than any book I’ve ever written because I tell a lot of stories about my relationships with the people I’ve written about through the years. It begins on the night I approached Knight about doing what became, ‘Season on the Brink.’

The official publication date is December 5th (I will be in Indianapolis that night for a bookstore appearance—more details closer to the date) but the book should be in stores by Thanksgiving weekend. I’m told it can be pre-ordered on line now.

It was great fun to do and the pre-publication reviews (Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Book List) have been great so I’m really encouraged and looking forward to seeing what happens when the book comes out.


Pipeking said...

Tony told the cardinals he was retiring when he was 10 games out ...he couldn't take it back at the end..things had moved on

Pipeking said...

Larissa told the cardinals he was retiring when he was 10 games out....he got surprised

Tim said...

Maybe you ought to take LaRussa around your Triple-A Tour and do his book simultaneously....

Anonymous said...

Nice piece...thanks. Go Cards!

John from Indiana said...

You made passing reference to your surprise that Tony LaRussa would get along so well with you, given his friendship with one Robert Montgomery Knight. Over the years, I would have loved to been a fly over the dinner table as the two of them dined together. My son and I were in Jupiter this past spring at a Cards-Mets spring training game (Was able to cross that off the "bucket list"); when I looked down at the bench next to the dugout and saw, slouched between LaRussa And Dave Duncan, you know who. I am an IU grad, and a lifelong Cardinal fan; and what has always intrigued me about that friendship is that Tony LaRussa quite possibly may be the most prominent face of PETA in this country. RMK, on the other hand, has probably spent more non-basketball time in the pursuit of killing animals for sport than just about anyone. How the two of them could reconcile those two passions in a civil manner probably speaks volumes to their mutual respect. Two driven men that have come to the conclusion that the niceties of life are worth sacrificing for wins on the field/court. Like them, or hate them (And almost EVERYONE lines up on one side or the other of that ledger), they have been two of the most compelling figures of the sporting world in my lifetime.

Am looking forward to the new book and am glad you will be kicking off the tour in the Hoosier State. Somehow seems appropriate. Any stops besides Indy?