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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: La Russa on Hall lineup card forever

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Published:   |   Updated: December 9, 2013 at 11:47 PM

He was a manager among men.

Here’s to Tampa’s Tony La Russa.

Here’s to ... a Hall of Famer.

Here’s to Ybor City, and West Tampa, and Jefferson High School, and Tampa Pony League and American Legion Post 248. Here’s to a USF graduate. OK, that FSU law degree, too.

Here’s to thinking-man Tony, win-today Tony.

Wade Boggs and Al Lopez, Tampa’s other baseball Hall of Famers, have company.

“This means a whole lot to a whole lot of people,” said Roy Carrasco, a childhood and high school teammate and lifelong friend. “We’re proud of Tony.”

Here’s to 33 years of managing in the majors. Here’s to smarts. And to longevity, the kind that would make others shrink — all that hard work, like his dad in the cigar factory.

Here’s to Tony La Russa.

Monday, He was elected to the Hall of Fame along with Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. There is visiting the mound and then there is being on the mountain top.

Monday: La Russa, 69, spoke of returning to the game, maybe in a front office.

“I miss the winning and losing,” La Russa said. “Someday, I’ll be with a team, I think. I’d like to be part of the competition again.”

He managed a mind-blowing 5,097 games in the big leagues.

He won an astounding 2,728 times.

He competed, always.

Here’s to Tony La Russa, who once said, “I get nervous in spring training.”

We believed him.

Only two men, yellowed photos Connie Mack and John McGraw, won more games as managers. Tony La Russa was old school just the same.

He won six pennants. He won at least one world championship while managing in both the American and National leagues, joining Sparky Anderson.

La Russa won three world titles total. When the last one was won, that St. Louis Cardinals miracle in 2011, he stepped away, on top.

He would have won five world championships, but Kirk Gibson had other plans in 1988, as did La Russa Tampa contemporary Lou Piniella and his Reds in 1990. Lou, he’s pretty smart, too.

Tony La Russa never came back to Tampa as much as some folks around here wanted. He didn’t come back for good, as Piniella has. But where you grew up is always where you grew up. And that makes people proud today.

Tony La Russa, a bonus-baby shortstop out of high school, played only 132 major-league games. He hit .199, without so much as one home run. Then he went out and impacted baseball generations.

He changed the way men ran games. For La Russa, there was always another game to manage, another puzzle to solve.

Thinkers loved him. Some great writers knelt at La Russa’s managing altar. There was backlash: Some folks became consistently naueseous at La Russa as Mastermind — like batting the pitcher eighth was the Manhattan Project.

But there’s this: Even with his brains, Tony La Russa left nothing to chance. He prepared like a fiend, day after day, season after season, win after win, spring training included.

La Russa wasn’t perfect, in or out of the dugout, but he was different. There’s that FSU law degree. He once performed in a charity ballet. He started a foundation that saves stray and injured animals, and arranges for them to visit hospital wards. The man could be a pussycat.

He’d also throw at your guys if you threw at his.

That fire burned at the end as it did in the beginning.

Here’s to Tampa 63 years ago, to 6-year-old Tony La Russa Jr. marching to picture day at V.M. Ybor Elementary School, past all his first-grade classmates in their new dresses and shiny suits and shoes.

He’d worn his flannel baseball uniform.

Tony La Russa wanted to be a star.

He became just that.

He’s a Hall of Famer. Write his name on that lineup card, forever.

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