No better way to end for La Russa

The bustle of the All-Star Game thrummed in the visitors clubhouse a few hours before the first pitch, music blaring with bustling reporters and star ballplayers with big names and huge talent talking and chatting and joking in one small, electric space.

Luggage and equipment were wheeled briskly into the room, VIPs whipped out, the crowd hummed as it filled the seats above the bowels of the stadium, and a sense of the hype-machine-in-overdrive that is the All-Star Game kept building and building. It was loud, exciting, a place full of people drunk on the joy of a game that in the end was more showcase than crucial competition.

But just a few feet away, through the door, where the noise stopped and a solemnity started, sat Tony La Russa — a man to whom this All-Star Game might have offered more meaning than any other person in attendance.

After all, it was this city that kicked off the retired manager’s now-bright career — one that ended in glory with last season’s World Series title and Tuesday’s All-Star Game win, but that started with a striking lack of success that must have bordered on humiliation.

“I signed with the Kansas City A’s in 1962,” La Russa told reporters earlier in the week, “and to think that the last time I’m going to put on a uniform is going to be in Kansas City is just an unbelievable coincidence.”

It began when he was a bonus baby promoted immediately to the majors at the tender age of 18. It was a promotion forced by rules that required young talent skip the minors, and even today, 49 years later, the memory is not a pleasant one. That became clear the moment he was asked to contemplate those early days.

What exactly did he remember about the beginning of his big-league career?

La Russa slowly turned his head. He looked over his glasses, paused just long enough to push a slight edge of tension into the room, and answered in with La Russa-esque finality: “I didn’t belong.”

And that was it. La Russa, as was his purview, was done with that question.

The great man had come a long way since not belonging, long enough to sit there in his white socks, to give three-word answers and have them taken for gospel, to start a feud with Dusty Baker over his exclusion of some Cincinnati Reds for this game, and to exude a general aura of I’m-a-good-guy-who-takes-no-crap. Some people hate him. Some love him. But he’s a winner and a straight shooter, and he was right: Back then, when his big-league journey began with the Kansas City Athletics, he in no way belonged.

Joining the majors because of a rule that said those who signed bonuses at a certain dollar amount or higher must do so, La Russa entered a nightmare of inadequacy that lasted most of the summer.

“(I told them), ‘Don’t play me. I don’t belong here. Seriously.’”

They agreed.

His first game was on May 10, 1963, when he pinch ran . . . a role of almost-utter exclusion that would last the next two months. He would pinch run 13 times before getting an at-bat, and his team lost the first 10 of those games. It wasn’t until July 20 that he got in at shortstop. It wasn’t until Aug. 15, three months later, that he got that at-bat. His first hit came on Aug. 17 in a home loss to the Baltimore Orioles. That was more than three months after his first stint as a pinch runner.

That was La Russa’s only season in Kansas City. His playing career lasted just six seasons, with a .199 average in 176 at-bats.

That was then. Tuesday was sitting in an office with framed posters of Satchel Paige and Roberto Clemente on the wall, 5,097 games managed behind him, and this, his very last game as a big league skipper — so he assured the three our four people in his office — about to begin.

People pressed him on whether he’d manage again, of course, and first he said, “I’m thinking about today. You know better than to ask that.”

So this will be your last time? He nodded.

You believe that?

“I don’t believe that,” La Russa said. “I know that.”

Know this, too. The 18-year-old who had no business in the majors is now the 67-year-old who leaves as one of its most respected practitioners. He had a maestro’s way with the game, with its nuances and its strategy and the players on whom any manager must rely to become a Hall of Famer.

Kansas City started that career in struggle, but Kansas City closed out that career under bright lights that shone clearly on La Russa’s greatness. All things went his way at the All-Star Game on Tuesday night. He stood on the field for batting practice, talking to players, leaning against the cage, offering sagacious baseball advice as the sun beat down and he was again at the center of things. When he took the field, wearing that Cardinals jersey and trotting for the last time from a dugout to the dirt of the baseline, folks booed and cheered, which seems right. He was a great man who provoked so many reactions.

Even the winning came easy again. The National League jumped to a five-run first-inning lead and never looked back. The NL won 8-0, and at every step it seemed the right ending for such a complicated, accomplished baseball man.

The win mattered. It was just an All-Star Game, yes, but to a guy like La Russa, winning and losing matter. That’s what drove him to those 2,728 wins. That’s what drove him to those three World Series championships. That’s what drove him, even in this Midsummer Classic meant to be an exhibition game, to focus only on the game.

He wasn’t much in the mood for reminisces because he was very much in the mood to focus on the game. Even retired, he shifted seamlessly back into his manager’s skin.

“It’s easy to slip right into concerns about who is pitching and who should play to win,” he said. “When you keep score, it’s easy to focus on winning.”

After the game, La Russa walked from the field to a podium one last time. He talked about baseball — about Justin Verlander’s first-inning struggles and live stuff, about all those triples, about a game in which the National League controlled the entire time.

He talked about the end.

“I was aware this was going to be it,” he said. “But this happened a lot last year with those comebacks.”

He talked about how rare it is in such a big game to get the chance to take a breath, look around and realize what the moment might mean years from now.

“It’s rare in a big game, when you can enjoy the moment,” he said. “I certainly enjoyed it.”

He saw Melky Cabrera, the game’s MVP, and lifted his arms and shouted, “Melky! Melky! Melky! Melky!”

Then one of the greatest managers of all time headed back to his office for one last time. Perhaps there, in private, he allowed himself to savor that the baseball gods had delivered him back to where it all started, a man now, his place in the game assured.

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