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Major League Baseball

Retiring La Russa still the pride of West Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 05:16 AM

Word of Tony La Russa's retirement Monday morning brought a smile to Marcelo Maseda, the Tampa native who played minor-league baseball before beginning a career as an assistant coach at Jefferson High and the University of Tampa.

Maseda remembered the time in 1962 when he persuaded the Reds to send a scout to watch La Russa and Lou Piniella, a pair of talented high school players.

A week later, that scout's report was relayed to Maseda: Piniella, who played at Jesuit High, didn't display the potential to hit at the big-league level. As for La Russa, the scout determined Jefferson's middle infielder didn't have the smarts to play pro ball.

"They told me La Russa was too dumb to be a ballplayer," Maseda said "When they told me that, I said to myself what a mistake they made. He turned out to be one of the best (major-league) managers we ever saw."

La Russa, who guided the St. Louis Cardinals to an improbable World Series victory last week against the Texas Rangers, brought an end Monday to a storied 33-year managerial career that saw him win 2,728 games — third-most in major league history — and three World Series championships.

"I salute his career," said Piniella, who also proved that Reds' scout wrong. "In the era that he managed there was some really good managers, but I think Tony was certainly the head of the class."

La Russa, 67, managed 5,097 games, the second only to Connie Mack, who managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years. La Russa and former Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win World Series titles in both leagues. Had La Russa returned for a 34th season, he would have easily passed John McGraw's 2,763 career victories and moved into second place all-time behind Mack's record 3,731 victories.

"I'm aware of the history of the game, but I would not be happy with myself if the reason I came back was to move up one spot," La Russa said during Monday's news conference at Busch Stadium. "That's not why you manage. It's not something that motivates me. Wherever you finish, you finish."

Besides, La Russa said the decision to retire was made in August.

"We went through the season and I felt that this just feels like it's time to end it, and I think it's going to be great for the Cardinals to refresh what's going on here," La Russa said. "I'm looking forward to what's ahead. I'm ready to do something different."

When asked what that might be, La Russa said maybe owning a minor-league team or opening a book store.

La Russa informed his players of his decision during an emotional team meeting after Sunday's championship parade through St. Louis.

"Some grown men cried," La Russa said. "I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times."

Piniella, who played American Legion baseball with La Russa, said La Russa displayed on the West Tampa ball fields the managerial tools that will eventually take him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

"He always had a passion for the game," Piniella said. "It starts with passion. It starts with a love of baseball. And he always enjoyed the winning aspect of it. Tony was about winning."

While he has been a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay area, La Russa remains the pride of his hometown.

"The first thing you remember about Tony, he was a great shortstop here at Jefferson. Tremendous shortstop," Jefferson baseball coach Pop Cuesta said. "He used to make plays diving in the outfield, throwing people out. A great pair of hands. That's the first thing you remember."

That legion team practiced at MacFarlane Park and Cuesta still remembers the day La Russa's dad called for his son to come home.

"I can clearly remember his dad hollering, 'Tony, come home, there's someone here to see you.' I think it was (Kansas City A's owner) Charles Finley," Cuesta said. "That was in the days when they didn't have the draft, they just made offers."

La Russa signed with the A's out of high school in 1962. The package, worth approximately $100,000, included a signing bonus, a 1962 Bonneville and a four-year college education that he turned into a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida and a law degree from Florida State.

Gaither High coach and former Little League teammate Frank Permuy said La Russa remembers his roots, leaving scores of tickets when the Cardinals played at the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Permuy recalled an American Baseball Coaches Association's national convention in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Permuy was about 10 rows back when the day's speaker, La Russa, then the Oakland A's manager, spotted him.

"All of a sudden he looks down and goes, 'Frank Permuy? Ybor City,' I played with this guy," Permuy said. "He was right in the middle of his speech and he was like, 'Stand up!' "

Albert "Bucky" De La Torre was a year ahead of La Russa at Jefferson but had little trouble voting La Russa a team captain, even though the future big-league manager was only a junior.

"Playing as a young kid, he was always prepared to play the game and he was our leader all the time. … I can't wait to see him in the Hall of Fame (La Russa will be eligible for enshrinement in December 2013, along with contemporaries Joe Torre and Bobby Cox)," De La Torre said. "To see him go in the Hall of Fame is going to be fantastic. I hope I'm going to be there to congratulate him. I know he's going to be in it automatically."

Information from Tribune wires was used in this report. (813) 259-7227