La Russa heads to Hall, hopes for club exec job
Tony La Russa noticed a change between his first game as a big
league manager in 1979 and his last in 2011.
”I was right at the beginning of guaranteed contracts. So right
away, players had security, potential security, and they were
motivated by, `Get yours. Get yours,” he said.
”And then the media – ESPN started in September of `79,” he
went on. ”There was all kind of distractions. Fame and fortune. So
what I really believed, and this is something we learned over time,
leadership is more important than ever in professional
After leading Oakland to the 1989 World Series title and St.
Louis to a pair of championships in 2006 and `11, La Russa was
unanimously elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Monday along with
former managerial colleagues Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
In the sabermetric age, La Russa was a bit of a throwback. He
was part of the revolution of batter-pitcher matchups, creating the
one-inning closer with Dennis Eckersley. But he was dismissive of a
”Moneyball” culture valuing esoteric statistical data in favor of
trusting what he saw.
”The metrics part of it is a really good preparation tool, but
when you start replacing the manager, his decision-making, what
you’re doing is undercutting his opportunity to earn respect, and
his leadership gets affected,” he said. ”Because who gets the
credit for those decisions? That’s 180 degrees the wrong place. So
leadership is more important. The more than you can support your
leader, which is the coaching staff and manager, the better chance
you have to win.”
Ever intense, the 69-year-old La Russa has spent the last two
years as an adviser to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. La Russa
would like to become a club executive.
”I miss the winning and losing,” he said after his election
was announced at the baseball winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista,
Fla. ”Some day I’ll be with a team, I think. I’d like to be part
of the competition again.”
Even with a large lead, there was no let up in La Russa’s
dugout. Lips tightly pursed, he pondered the possibilities from his
spot in the corner nearest the steps to the clubhouse.
An innovator, he batted his pitcher eighth in the batting order
432 times, ostensibly to set up a more favorable scenario for
Until La Russa made his final move, walking off from the 2011
World Series parade into retirement, the guard never really came
down. And in some ways it still hasn’t, as evidenced by fierce
attachments to favorite players, general managers and owners.
Cerebral, and often combative and cranky, La Russa compiled a
regular-season record of 2,728-2,365 in 33 seasons. He had 70
postseason victories, trailing only Torre’s 84, and joined role
model Sparky Anderson as the lone managers to win Series in both
In all, La Russa managed 12 first-place finishes and six
pennants and was picked as Manager of the Year four times. He went
to the World Series three straight years from 1988-90, and also
lost in the Series in 2004 when the Cardinals were swept by
A career .199 hitter with no home runs, La Russa made his big
league debut as a teen infielder with the 1963 Kansas City
Athletics. He got his first managing job at age 35 with the Chicago
White Sox in 1979.
In 1983, La Russa guided the White Sox to their first postseason
berth in 24 years. He rewarded new Cardinals owners with a division
title his first season in St. Louis in 1996, ending the franchise’s
nine-year postseason slump, and made it to the playoffs nine times
in 16 seasons overall.
The Oakland connection of La Russa and GM Walt Jocketty led to a
trade for Mark McGwire, who shattered Roger Maris’ record of 61
homers that had stood since 1961 with 70 homers in 1998. Though
since tainted by McGwire’s admission of steroid use, Big Mac was a
one-man show that had fans clamoring to see him launch batting
practice fastballs into the seats and helped regularly sell out
Busch Stadium despite the team’s so-so record.
La Russa consistently denied knowledge or involvement in the
The manager’s no-nonsense and refusal to relocate to the Midwest
left a bit of distance from a fan base that adored Whitey Herzog’s
folksy approach. La Russa softened and gained perspective during
the 2001 season, marred by the death of pitcher Darryl Kile.
The final season was trying. A painful bout of shingles sapped
energy early in the season and he informed GM John Mozeliak of his
decision in August before the Cardinals rallied from a 10 1/2-game
deficit in the NL wild-card race to upset Philadelphia and
Milwaukee in the playoffs.
Down to their final strike in two different innings in Game 6,
the Cardinals came back in Game 6 of the World Series against Texas
and then won the title.
Soon after that, he met with his players and told them he was
leaving for good.
”Some grown men cried,” La Russa said later. ”I kind of liked
that because they made me cry a few times.”