La Russa visits with Tigers

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LAKELAND, Fla. — Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland sat together in the manager’s office at the Detroit Tigers’ spring training complex, a couple old friends trading barbs and reminiscing.

“I’ve got one goal,” La Russa said. “It’s to have him stop smoking — and eat tofu.”

A few minutes later, Leyland had a retort ready.

“I didn’t start smoking until I started coaching for him,” the Detroit skipper said.

La Russa retired after last season, leaving on top after managing the St. Louis Cardinals to an improbable World Series title, but by no means is he about to turn his back on baseball. He plans to visit with the Tigers for a bit, but he’ll also tour some other spring training locales. He and Leyland have been friends for a while, and La Russa hopes to learn a few things about how a front office operates from Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski, who he’s known for over three decades.

“I may go to the front office sometime,” La Russa said. “I thought he’d be a good guy to talk to and figure out what goes on upstairs, besides second-guessing the manager.”

Dressed casually in jeans, La Russa took the field with Leyland when the team started its workout. Reliever Octavio Dotel, who played for the Cardinals last year before joining the Tigers, shared a hug with his former manager, but for the most part La Russa seemed content to stay off to the side and observe.

La Russa said he’s talked to Commissioner Bud Selig about working for Major League Baseball in some capacity.

“I don’t know how official the commissioner wants to make it,” he said.

La Russa remained vague about what he might do, but he said he would not be taking Joe Torre’s old job as executive vice president of baseball operations.

“I think keeping Tony in the game of baseball is a very good thing, whatever he chooses to do,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said.

La Russa wasn’t the only big name to leave the Cardinals. Slugger Albert Pujols went to the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent, but La Russa expressed optimism that St. Louis would be tough to beat even without the star first baseman.

“It’s hard to say without Albert, but they’ve got a really good club,” La Russa said. “They made a really good signing with (outfielder Carlos) Beltran. Their lineup in the middle is deep. … They get (pitcher Adam) Wainwright back and the young relievers that are a year older. I think they’re going to be really good. Really good.”

La Russa and Leyland have both served on Selig’s special committee for on-field matters, and La Russa expressed support for baseball’s decision to expand the postseason — a move that would force each league’s two wild cards to play a single-elimination game against each other before meeting a division champion in a series.

It’s still not clear if the change will start this year or in 2013.

The Cardinals barely made the playoffs as a wild card last year, then immediately knocked out a Philadelphia team that had been dominant during the regular season.

“The whole point is improving the value of finishing first in the division,” La Russa said. “You should have more of an advantage, and right now wild-card teams are not penalized enough, and it’s just a way to have them go through another challenge, use up one more pitcher, whatever it is. I think too many clubs like us, the wild cards, they’ve gone and gone and gone and won it all — or eliminated the team that for six months has finished first.”

When La Russa was managing the Chicago White Sox, he hired Leyland as a coach in 1982. Leyland eventually became a manager himself and won a World Series with Florida in 1997.

Leyland managed another season with the Marlins and one with Colorado before walking away. La Russa then encouraged the Cardinals to hire Leyland as a Pittsburgh-based scout, and he would spend spring training with them.

Leyland took over the Tigers in 2006.

La Russa and Leyland talked about the phone calls they’d exchange after games, helping each other get over tough losses or celebrate big victories. Even the most experienced managers can use a sounding board now and then.

“It’s not an easy job,” Leyland said. “Over the years, we’ve made a lot of phone calls at 2, 3 in the morning about how we messed the game up or how we had a great win. … There’s some nights where, who do you call? You call your friend who does the same thing you do.”