TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014
Rays

Focus, fire still drive Cardinals' La Russa

By
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:44 PM

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa already has a ticket to Cooperstown in his back pocket. Well, at least that's what everyone else says. La Russa himself, of course, isn't comfortable looking beyond the matchups of tonight's game against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"You stay in the present, stay in the moment,'' said La Russa by telephone from Baltimore, where the Cardinals faced the Orioles on Thursday night before heading to the next interleague stop in Tampa Bay. "You concentrate on the next one.''

The next one means a return home for La Russa, a Jefferson High School product who remains the pride of Ybor City and West Tampa for baseball old-timers.

Otherwise, the next one isn't particularly unusual. How often have you seen it on television? La Russa will stalk around the visiting dugout, searching, as always, for an edge. He will present a purpose-filled lineup, although it's without injured superstar Albert Pujols. He will switch on a dime with moves and counter-moves. He will bunt, play some hit-and-run.

Think of something else, another wrinkle? Odds are, La Russa already has considered the possibility.

It's all part of managing a major-league game, which La Russa again will execute tonight – for the 5,017th time.

"That's a big number, a really big number,'' said La Russa, 66, in his 33rd consecutive season as a major league manager. "I guess it snuck up on me. I had no idea (about approaching 5,000 career games) until somebody told me earlier this season. I guess it kind of makes you think.''

For a moment, maybe.

Not for long.

"I don't think Tony will be very reflective until he's out of it – and there's no indication when or even if that will happen any time soon,'' broadcaster Bob Costas said. "People who feel as passionately and as intensely as he does, they've been known to burn out. When you're around him, he doesn't seem to have tired of it. As long as he has been around baseball, as much as he has seen and done, the subject fascinates him – still.''

Earlier this season, a bout with shingles forced him to miss six games, a rare concession. Even when completely healthy, La Russa admits the game has gotten harder. He's working on a one-year contract with the Cardinals, an arrangement he will likely continue. By mid-2012, La Russa figures to surpass John McGraw at No. 2 on the all-time victory list.

"It will end at some point,'' La Russa said. "When, I don't know. It always depends on how much fire is in your gut.''

For La Russa, that has never been an issue.

* * * * *

And to think it all began so quickly, almost by accident.

La Russa, a slick-fielding shortstop, was signed as a bonus baby by Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley. The package, worth approximately $100,000, included a signing bonus, a 1962 Bonneville and a four-year college education.

One year later, after he ruined his arm during a pickup softball game in Tampa, that education came in handy. Baseball was never the same. He finished as a .199 big-league hitter. In 16 seasons, he was called up six times and sent down six more. He played in 17 cities in 10 different leagues.

Through the frustration, La Russa chipped away at his bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida. Then he graduated from law school at Florida State and passed the bar. But in the middle of that, he was a player-coach, then a minor league manager at Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Iowa.

On Aug. 2, 1979 – the day that Thurman Munson was killed in an airplane crash – La Russa was elevated to manager of the Chicago White Sox. He had a year and a half of managerial experience.

He was 34.

"It felt a little overwhelming, actually a lot overwhelming,'' said La Russa, who was favored by White Sox general manager Roland Hemond. "There I was, in the middle of the golden era when you knew all the managers by their first names. There was Billy (Martin), Earl (Weaver), Sparky (Anderson), Whitey (Herzog), Gene (Mauch). And there was me. I just tried to take my best shot. I was humbled pretty quick.''

But he learned just as quickly.

"I loved playing for Tony,'' said former White Sox infielder Jim Morrison, now the manager of the Florida State League's Charlotte Stone Crabs. "Sometimes, you're motivated by a love of the manager or because you're afraid of the manager. I thought Tony knew how to connect with us. As a manager today, just like Tony did, I try to learn everyone's hot buttons and get to know them. Tony was great for me.''

La Russa installed Morrison as his leadoff batter in the initial game. Morrison opened with a home run in an 8-5 victory at Toronto.

From there, La Russa's career became a tutorial in modern baseball history. He took the White Sox to the 1983 AL West title, their first postseason appearance since 1959. In Oakland, he captured three straight AL pennants. He has eight division titles and two NL pennants with St. Louis.

Only Sparky Anderson and La Russa (1989 Athletics, 2006 Cardinals) have won the World Series in both leagues. Only La Russa and Leo Durocher have won at least 500 games with three different clubs.

La Russa's Athletics were victimized by Kirk Gibson's immortal home run. His teams were twice swept in the World Series. Four of La Russa's teams had 100 victories or more, but none of those squads won the Series.

"The game has enriched Tony and it also has scarred him,'' Costas said. "I believe he would be completely at home in a conversation with John McGraw or Connie Mack, but would also understand what Bill James is about. He's old-school in one way, more modern in another way and intense about all of it.''

* * * * *

The overall resume practically screams "Hall of Fame.''

La Russa, in lawyerly fashion, presents a counter argument.

"I think I've benefitted by working in three great organizations,'' he said. "I've never been in a bad situation. I don't want to sound disrespectful or not appreciative, but the reality I can't get away from is just being fortunate is not a real strong selling point for being in the Hall of Fame.

"Two of my really good friends are Jim Leyland and Tom Kelly. Whenever they were in great situations, they won. I know in my heart, had Jim or Tom been in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis when I was, they'd have the 5,000 games (managed) and however many wins that adds up to. That's how I look at it.''

Even if others have differing views.

"He has adapted from generation to generation, from decade to decade,'' said Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, a former Cardinals executive who hired La Russa for St. Louis in 1996. "But he kept the same work ethic, the same intensity and the same preparation.''

"Tony's teams always play with high energy and with a certain amount of chip on their shoulder in a positive way,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They are very assertive, very aggressive and very fundamentally sound.''

"From start to finish, even if he's winning by 10 runs, he's not going to crack a smile, because that's losing focus and he doesn't take anything for granted in this game,'' said former big-league first baseman Tino Martinez, who played for the Cardinals in 2002 and '03. "Beyond that, his attention to detail is amazing.''

Former manager Lou Piniella, now a Tampa Bay-based scout with the San Francisco Giants, said La Russa's legacy is unquestioned.

"He's the best manager of his generation,'' said Piniella, La Russa's former American Legion teammate, who defeated his boyhood friend in the 1990 World Series. "Believe me, you can't take a snooze when Tony is in that other dugout. He'll take advantage of you if you do.

"I'm not convinced he's ever going to take the uniform off. He's a Hall of Famer, no doubt.''

(813) 259-7353

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments