TAMPA — It was 1989. Tony La Russa, the Oakland Athletics manager, was on the verge of winning his first World Series. At the high-water mark of his career, he visited with a Tampa reporter and spoke about old times.
“There are so many players from Tampa to make the big leagues, and I was one of them,’’ said La Russa, who signed as a $100,000 bonus baby in 1962, getting a personal visit from Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley. “But I was unique. I was the one who failed. I stunk.’’
La Russa, of course, never brings up the fact his career was doomed after he ruined his arm during a pickup softball game. He finished as a .199 big-league hitter. In 16 seasons, he was called up six times and sent down six. He played in 17 cities in 10 different leagues.
He never could have imagined his playing career ending in such disappointment.
He probably never could have imagined the scene in Cooperstown, N.Y., either.
Tony La Russa — the pride of Ybor City, West Tampa, Cuscaden Park, McFarlane Park, Tampa Pony-Grad League, American Legion Post 248 and Jefferson High — will be inducted today into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox.
“It’s so far beyond anything I had in mind,’’ said La Russa, 69. “When you’re grinding day by day, it’s about the next game. You don’t think about the culmination. I am very grateful.’’
After not coming close to reaching his goals as a player, La Russa became an extraordinary manager with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals. He had 2,728 victories, ranking third all-time behind Connie Mack and John McGraw, and managed 5,097 games. Three times, his teams won World Series championships.
Only La Russa and Leo Durocher won at least 500 games with three different clubs. Only La Russa and Sparky Anderson won the World Series in both leagues.
“As far as I’m concerned, Tony was the best manager of his era,’’ said Tampa’s Lou Piniella, whose Cincinnati Reds swept La Russa’s A’s in the 1990 World Series. “He was very astute. Very reserved. Looked good in his uniform.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he became such a superb major-league manager. He had all those attributes as a kid. I enjoy the fact that he’s a young man from the neighborhood who achieved greatness.’’
La Russa is the kid who wore his baseball uniform to V.M. Ybor Elementary School for first-grade pictures.
He’s the slick-fielding Jefferson High shortstop, the son of Italian immigrants of Spanish ancestry, who could beat you with his bat, glove, legs — or his brain.
He’s the guy who created a furor in pre-baseball draft 1962, when players went to the highest bidder, and representatives from 17 major-league teams lined the streets in La Russa’s neighborhood, waiting their turn to make a pitch.
He’s the player who fell short of his big-league goal, but kept persevering, unwilling to let the game beat him down, but also a man with a plan. Along with a six-figure signing bonus and a 1962 Bonneville, La Russa also received a four-year college scholarship. In the offseason, he attended the University of South Florida, then received a law degree from Florida State University.
But he never let go of baseball. He was a player-coach, then a minor-league manager at Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Iowa.
On Aug. 2, 1979, general manager Roland Hemond, sensing a rising star, elevated him to the Chicago White Sox.
La Russa was 34.
“I was overmatched,’’ he said. “I was overwhelmed. But I got in there and learned, gave it my best shot.’’
He guided the White Sox to the 1983 American League West title, the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 1959. In Oakland, he won three straight AL pennants and another division title in 1992. With the Cardinals, he had seven division titles and two NL pennants.
“Just give him nine guys to put on the field and a pitching staff and he’ll figure out a way to win,’’ said Tampa’s Tino Martinez, who played for La Russa with the Cardinals. “And intense? He could be winning by 10 runs in the eighth inning and he won’t crack a smile. He never loses focus, because he knows how baseball is.’’
“He knows how to connect with people and how to push their hot buttons,’’ said Jim Morrison, a King High graduate who played for La Russa with the White Sox. “He connects with the players because he knows where the players have been.’’
La Russa was driven to make the best situation for his players.
“He really understood that it’s a game for the players and he wasn’t the show, but he believed it was the manager’s job, even if it’s a small percentage, to tilt the chances his team’s way,’’ broadcaster Bob Costas said. “He was fascinated by, ‘What can I do to put this player in the best possible position to succeed?’ Even if it was only a handful of times a season, he was driven to find that formula.
“He did that well. He did it in both leagues. He stood the test of time.’’
Despite a playing career that ended in disappointment, he found his ultimate niche in the game, one that rewarded his preparation, intensity and intelligence. Now he’ll be remembered for all time.
He’s Tony La Russa — Hall of Famer.
“One of the greatest to ever do it,’’ Piniella said. “No question about it.’’