PHOENIX — Tony La Russa was not very far into his managerial career when baseball innovator Paul Richards had some advice that helped jump start La Russa on the road to Cooperstown.
"Trust your gut," Richards said.
"Don’t cover your butt."
With three World Series rings and 2,728 career victories, La Russa made it through with guts, imagination and an ability to get the most out of his roster. La Russa did it his way, and not always conventionally. Who consistently batted the pitcher eighth? Who pored over pitcher-hitter matchups before it was common practice? Who treated a hit batter as a tort, a wrongful act that required immediate satisfaction?
"So the one thing I followed religiously, I was never afraid.," La Russa said. "I mean I made a lot of decisions that people would question and a lot of them didn’t work. But I was never afraid to think about or make a decision."
La Russa got his start with owner Bill Veeck, general manager Roland Hemond and the Chicago White Sox in the second half of the 1979 season and had more of his success with Oakland (1986-95) and St. Louis (1996-2011). His 1989 World Series ring sits on his left ring finger, while his 2006 and 2011 rings ride on his right ring finger and right pinkie. He feels a debt to all, and out of respect he has asked not to have an insignia on the cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
La Russa hopes that his allotted 10 minutes at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday will give him enough time to acknowledge all those who have helped along the way — Richards, Hemond, long-time pitching coach and brother in arms Dave Duncan, twice general manager Walt Jocketty, White Sox minor league manager Loren Babe, former St. Louis coach George Kissell are among a long list.
"It’s a particular problem for me, because I have a lot of people to thank," said La Russa, who is in his third month as the Diamondbacks’ first chief baseball officer.
La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history behind Connie Mack (3,731) and the New York Giants’ John McGraw (2,763), retiring after the Cardinals beat Texas in the 2011 World Series. La Russa could have passed McGraw by the 2012 All-Star break had he wanted. Bobby Cox (2,504) and Joe Torre (2,326), who will be Sunday with La Russa, round out the top five. In a serendipitous twist, Jocketty fired Torre in St. Louis in 2005 and hired La Russa the following winter, while Torre was hired by the New York Yankees that same winter and won four World Series in the next five years.
"He’s highly intelligent, he asks a lot of questions, he listens well, and he puts it into practice," said Hemond, remembering Babe’s evaluation of a young La Russa. "So he excelled in all that people should do."
After a modest six-year playing career that started at age 18 with Kansas City in 1963, La Russa was a minor league coach and manager for several years, impressing Babe and others in the White Sox organization along the way, before taking over the White Sox as a midseason replacement in 1979. He loved baseball, but just in case he studied law at the University of South Florida in his home town of Tampa and got his degree when the passed the bar exam in one sitting — no easy feat.
La Russa won a league title as manager at Double-A Knoxville and was managing the White Sox’ Triple-A team in Iowa when asked to take over for Don Kessinger. His wife Elaine was pregnant with their first child.
"I remember the anxiety that the two of us went through," La Russa said. "Do we accept this . . . the pregnancy was so close. I had the law degree and I loved managing, but I wasn’t going to penalize the family by staying in a long time. And if you say no to this, you would probably never get another shot. I got there and I felt totally unprepared. You know, I wasn’t a good player. In fact I was a lousy player, and I had only managed a little bit."
Even after five winning seasons in his six full years with the White Sox, La Russa was fired by general manager Ken Harrelson — White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has said that his biggest mistake was putting Harrelson in that post in the first place. Instead of the end, however, it a springboard, and La Russa gladly dove in when Jocketty scooped him up in 1986 shortly after the White Sox let him go.
La Russa had 11 90-win seasons and only six non-winning seasons over the next 25 years.
"I was always a reader," La Russa said, "and I have learned that if you’re given an opportunity and you have the fear of failure so you don’t take it, it haunts you the rest of your life. I love the game. Being close to the game and staying a part of it when I wasn’t good enough as a player, I really enjoyed it.
"And I was challenged by it because one of the things that my mentors were teaching me was that the thing that most of his players thought, what the lineup is and do you hit-and-run, that that’s only a part of it.
"You know, there’s a whole frame of mind that you try to create with your club about team and professionalism and excellence and competing. And I was fired up about it. And I was really challenged that there was a lot to that job that I didn’t realize. But I didn’t have any expectation that we could have enough success that I would survive very long."
Thirty-five years later, the survivor is in the Hall of Fame.