Baseball / Sports

La Russa's career is capped, but doesn't end with HOF selection

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Election to the Hall of Fame has served as the defining endorsement and final act for nearly everybody else who has made a career of baseball. But Tony La Russa has started a new career in the game just months after being elected to a Hall of Fame class that will be honored Sunday here at the Clark Sports Center.

Former Cardinals manager La Russa will enter the Hall along with fellow managers Joe Torre (himself a former Cardinal) and Atlanta's Bobby Cox. From the recent players, the honorees will be pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine of the Braves and Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.

After retiring as Cardinals manager following the 2011 World Series championship, La Russa spent a couple of years working with the commissioner's office before signing on in May to run the Arizona Diamondbacks' baseball operation.

"At this point," he said, "I'm totally focused on trying to understand why I'm being inducted into the Hall of Fame," La Russa said. "There certainly isn't anything that has much to do with me personally."

Certainly not his .199 career batting average without a home run. "Trying to hit the ball out of the infield, you get to understand what you can do and what you can't do," said La Russa.

La Russa does have those 2,728 victories, first among living former managers and third behind Connie Mack and John McGraw all time. But he insists that most of what he has achieved is an organizational accomplishment, from the top of the structure to minor league development to the people who work as support staff.

"I had the opportunity to be in perfect situations for more than 30 years," he said. "I have a lot of friends in managing who didn't experience that. There wasn't one day that I didn't feel total support."

Now he is at the upper end of that spectrum but he gets to win and lose again. "I like having a stake in the game," La Russa said.

For obvious reasons, his ties to the Cardinals gradually will be lessened although he said he had been invited to attend next January's Winter Warm-Up and the organization threw a party in his honor here Saturday night.

The St. Louis managing experience, he said, was different than any other because Cardinals baseball was king in St. Louis. "I had great affection for the times when I was in Chicago and Oakland but we were second bananas in those areas (to the Cubs and San Francisco Giants)," La Russa said.

"All of a sudden, you walk into the Cardinals and you appreciate the tangible feeling you get from the history of the organization and the people around it. The question was 'What are you going to do to keep this legacy moving forward?' I loved that responsibility."

La Russa said one of his proudest moments as Cardinals manager came in his first season, in 1996 when the Cardinals, who hadn't won anything in nine years, got one win from making the World Series after capturing a division series against San Diego and taking the Braves to seven games in the league championship series.

"The thing you had to understand about 1996 was that we had to get it back on track," La Russa said, referring to winning as well as clubhouse culture. "It was my most difficult season."

La Russa had chosen to leave Oakland after the 1995 season. Walter Haas, the A's popular owner, had just died. La Russa had considered taking the Boston job after the 1994 season but stayed in Oakland because of Haas. After 1995, he pondered potential futures with Baltimore and even going back to the White Sox.

"It was just time to go someplace," La Russa said. "I thought I was going to the American League."

But he heeded the advice of future Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who had managed teams to World Series titles in both leagues, with Cincinnati and Detroit.

"He said (the National League) would be some place I would really enjoy because I loved the game," La Russa said. Having attended the 1982, 1985 and 1987 World Series in St. Louis, La Russa became acquainted with the St. Louis fans.

"So that and the Clydesdales ... it was a very powerful direction," he said.

And so was general manager Walt Jocketty, who had just taken over in St. Louis but who had worked in the front office when La Russa both played and managed in Iowa and again when La Russa managed the A's. At a celebration in Oakland for the late Haas in 1995, Jocketty recalls sitting down at a table with La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan and telling him what a great place St. Louis was to work.

"The whole time," La Russa said, "he kept talking to Dave Duncan about young pitchers like Alan Benes and Matt Morris. And Duncan says, 'We're going to St. Louis.' I said, 'Yes sir.'"

Among La Russa's other favorites, he said, was the Game 7 league championship series win over Houston in St. Louis, that vaulted the Cardinals into their first World Series in 17 years and then the 2006 and 2011 World Series championships.

"I couldn't rank one over the other," he said.

But, La Russa did use the words "magical run" in describing the 2011 dash to the playoffs and beyond and the exultation of the victory parade the Cardinals had two days later.

There had been a downtown parade in 2006, too, which La Russa also had enjoyed because in 1989, the A's decided not have a victory parade so soon after the earthquake. But the 2011 parade was going to be La Russa's last roundup with the Cardinals.

"We had a perfect day to celebrate a wonderful championship," he said. "You cannot overestimate what a great experience it is to be a part of that."

But he knew that night he would have to tell his players, most of whom did not know, that he had decided not to come back.

"I knew it really was going to spoil their day. It was like, 'Thanks, but see you later,' " La Russa said. "But I could not put that off."

And, while he is now employed by a National League opponent, La Russa said he always will feel pride at having been a part of the Cardinals' current state and he said it was in good hands with the solid ownership of Bill DeWitt Jr., and his group, general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny and his staff.

"I feel very good for the Cardinals. I will always pull for them," La Russa said.

La Russa's 16 years in St. Louis weren't always a smooth ride. There were some blips, some more significant than not, with players.

Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who was part of a famous disagreement with his manager in 1996, leading to an iciness that still exists, said, "I didn't really get to play for Tony. I was the odd guy out there."

Outfielder Ron Gant, who was on La Russa's first Cardinals championship team in 1996, didn't always see eye-to-eye with La Russa.

"It was different," Gant here the other day said. "But the one thing that Tony did was keep the team intense. His intensity level matched any of the players. That's probably the reason he had so much success as a manager.

"So, if you weren't as intense as he was, you were going to have a problem."

Good or bad, La Russa has been credited for establishing the one-inning closer.

Good or bad, he has been credited for batting the pitcher eighth as an offensive concept rather than a novelty.

Good or bad, he will debate baseball at all hours with anyone who would like to engage him.

Hall of Famer Bob Gibson has found La Russa an acquired taste. "We argue all the time," said Gibson, smiling. "And he always wins.

"He's like my late brother friend, Fred. In all the years I've known Tony, I've never heard him say, 'I don't know."'

On Sunday, La Russa will be one of five players/managers with Braves backgrounds being inducted into one of the Hall's most impressive classes ever as 50,000 to 60,000 look on.

Besides Maddux, Glavine and Cox, Torre also played for and managed for the Braves, and La Russa played for the Braves.

He was two for seven in 1971.

"What I remember is that they don't claim me," La Russa said. "I try to tell (Braves president John) Schuerholz that I was a lifetime .286 hitter in the National League and he reminded me that it happened in seven at-bats and the two were bloopers."

La Russa's home run will come on Sunday.

Asked if he wished he had hit one, La Russa said, "You know what I wish? What's the word? Expunge. I wish that my playing record be expunged so that nobody ever would know how really poorly I played."

When he holds that plaque late this afternoon, La Russa can consider his playing career wiped from the slate.

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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