Three World Series championships. Thirty years in the dugout. Third all time in MLB victories, behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw. Tony La Russa is one of the best managers in baseball history.
Late last year, he retired from the sport after leading his St. Louis Cardinals to an unlikely World Series victory over the Texas Rangers, a historic ending to a historic career.
La Russa has captured the spirit of that 2011 campaign, along with his thoughts on over three decades as a manager, in the newly released book One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season.
While touring the country reading and signing his new work, La Russa found a spare moment to sit down and share his thoughts on everything from Melky Cabrera to what he would do if he was the commissioner.
Read on for the full interview.
[Please note: this interview was conducted on Oct. 5, 2012]
Melky Cabrera displays his 2011 All-Star MVP Award
B/R: Now that you’ve retired, do you find yourself rooting for the teams you managed when you turn on a game?
Tony La Russa: Yes. The White Sox, the A’s and the Cardinals have a special place in my heart. It’s a good question to ask because, whatever the sport, I’ve got a lot of friends in coaching, so I pull for the teams where those coaches are working. Like this weekend, one of my best friends, Jim Leyland, his Tigers are playing the A’s. That’s a tough call. I’ll pull for both of them. Normally, I pull for the three teams I managed or a friend.
B/R: We all know Melky Cabrera was the MVP of this year’s All-Star game. Do American League playoff teams have a right to be upset that their World Series home-field advantage was lost, in part, to a player who cheated?
Tony La Russa: I believe, had their score been really close, they would’ve had a legitimate gripe. It was eight to nothing. Now they didn’t score against our pitching and we found ways to score. Melky definitely helped us. He was a part of two rallies. So I think the answer is, because of the score, we’re okay, but with a closer score, they’d have a gripe.
David Freese bats in Game 6 of the World Series
B/R: The games of Sept. 28, 2011, were somewhat responsible for the change in the wild-card format this year. Of all the games you’ve managed, where does that night rank?
Tony La Russa: When you’ve been fortunate like I have (30 years, three great places) you have some nights. But if you pick one, you disrespect the others, so my favorite thing is a tie for first. And that night would be one of them. What makes that night unique is that it was a night for baseball. And the ironic part is that we were the only game in the central time zone but Carp [Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter] was so sharp (the whole game was two hours and 20 minutes) we were in our clubhouse, watching the other games on the East Coast finish. One was a rain delay; two were extra-inning games.
Even if I wasn’t a part of one of those teams, I would be thrilled to be associated with Major League Baseball, to be a part of a profession that created that kind of drama. To have a team invested and a part of it, that adds a lot to it. And then the way it ended, we ended up celebrating four times: getting in, Division Series, Championship Series, World Series. The most spontaneous and outrageous was getting in, because we were sitting there knowing we were going to play the Braves the next day and then suddenly, you’re in. The guys went nuts. So it was more just a great night for all of baseball.
B/R: The 2011 Cardinals were twice within one strike of losing the World Series in Game 6 before coming back to win that game and eventually the championship. What do you tell someone like David Freese or Lance Berkman before they stand in at the plate in a situation like that?
Tony La Russa: What’s important is for those things to be said well before that moment. You can never get to the end and start developing a clutch or a winning attitude, or toughness about adversity. When you have a team or a player respond like that, it’s because the work was done. Baseball isn’t like other sports where you can designate players or make substitutions. When the line comes around, it comes around, so we tried to make everybody our go-to guy. That was part of it.
The other part, which was more important, is we had worked on the urgency with which we competed and our team chemistry all year long. And our team was on fire. I mean, we’d already been there a bunch of times, right against the cliff. We never gave in and we never gave up. Sometimes you can do that and you still get beat. But we didn’t get beat. The point is not to think that before Freese goes up there I say, “Come here, let me give you the secret.” That’s something that develops.
The Oakland Athletics bat against the Texas Rangers in the season's final game with the division on the line.
B/R: As we speak, there are two one-off Wild Card games to be played later today. What are your feelings on the new format?
Tony La Russa: Four years ago, Commissioner Selig formed a 14-person committee to deal with any and all issues. In that committee, there were four managers, four general managers, four owners, Frank Robinson and George Will. I’m one of the four managers. He wanted people from on the field, the front office and ownership. Last year, we started talking (I think Joe Torre is the guy that really addressed it) that the division winner wasn’t getting enough of an advantage going into the postseason. The wild-card team was only at a slight disadvantage.
Too often, like us, not only did they win the first series and the second series, they won the World Series. So we wanted to give priority to the division winner. You saw it in action perfectly this year. The last day of the season and you had Texas, Oakland, New York and Baltimore. All four of those teams were trying desperately to win their division to avoid the Wild Card game.
We also wanted to disadvantage the wild-card team. Now they have to win an extra game. There are still only ten teams in thirty in the playoffs (two-thirds of the teams are eliminated) so we’re not football or basketball. The only ones that are complaining now a little bit are the wild-card teams with the best record. Well, win your division.
B/R: If Bud Selig handed you the keys to Major League Baseball for a day, how would you change or tweak the game?
Tony La Russa: That’s phrased very well. If it’s one day, then I would do something very simple. I would kick the designated hitter out. I think it makes sense to have both leagues play under the same set of rules. If it’s designated hitter or no designated hitter, I vote no. Simple.
If I was given a month or a year in the job, I would try to tweak the system. Even though there’s a club here or there, like the A’s who only spent $50 million, over a five- or 10-year period it’s the team with more resources that wins most often. I would try to level the playing field.
Tony La Russa speaks at his jersey retirement ceremony in St. Louis.
B/R: If the Cardinals had lost the World Series in Game 6, or even back in Houston at the end of the regular season, do you still hang your spikes up at the end of the season?
Tony La Russa: Absolutely. I knew it after July 1. When people tell me that I went out on top, I tell them I was retiring come heck or high water, and that I’m just very grateful it ended the way it did.
B/R: Bruce Bochy calls me and tells me they need me to manage tomorrow’s playoff. What do I need to know before first pitch?
Tony La Russa: I think that’s where analytics can be helpful. They can take you from zero to some feel for the situation. You want to try and get a feel for how your team matches up against theirs. The first thing you would do is get the analytics going.
Next thing is to look at both sides. You’d want to get together with your pitching coaches, your bullpen coaches and look at your players. Here’s our starter: What does he do well? What does he do badly? What shows you he’s on time? What shows you he’s struggling? And then bullpen-wise, how would you suggest they order the pitchers? The offensive side is the third thing. Who’s pitching against us? What does he throw? How can we beat him? You talk to your hitting coaches.
Finally, you would think about their bullpen. If they make changes late, what’s the order of their pitchers? What’s our lineup? What’s our bench? Put it all together, that’s decent preparation. You’ll have an idea about both teams. You’ll have a play in your mind whether the game goes good or bad. And then you just watch the game.
Albert Pujols bats in his final game as a St. Louis Cardinal
B/R: What aspect of managing a professional baseball team do you feel is least understood by fans?
Tony La Russa: I think there’s an assumption that because a guy signs a professional contract that you can expect him to give his best effort for all the best reasons. You may or may not get his best effort, like if it’s someone satisfied with less than his best because he’s still going to make enough money, but the one you really get tripped on is ‘for all the best reasons.'
The best reason is that he’s a teammate who wants to contribute to his team winning. The issue of our times, over the past 30 years, is how guaranteed money and a lot of publicity have distracted players. The most important thing you can do is to work on the frame of mind of your players before you ever get to the baseball.
B/R: Do you approach the frame of mind of a player like Albert Pujols or Mark McGwire differently from the rest of the team?
Tony La Russa: I approach each person differently, because they’re all different. If you have a guy who knows when he comes to the ballpark that he’s going to play, then that’s a certain amount attention that he gets just by having his name in the lineup. If you have a guy who comes to the park as an extra man, who doesn’t know if he’s going to play, you have to give him a different kind of attention.
Here again, and I wear it out, but believe me, it’s the essence of what we’ve done for years, our first priority every day is to look at Albert or Mark or a bench player and see if how he looks. Frame of mind, frame of mind, frame of mind. You watch him.
Only once you check that off do you see if he’s struggling with the bat. But you don’t get to his swing until you make sure; remember, he may just be tired, he may be hurt, or he may have a problem at home. You start messing with someone’s swing without knowing those things; you might be messing with something that’s not broken.
Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Franklin
B/R: One Last Strike is an account not only of your final season, but also your career at large. Did writing this book provide you with any new insights about your tenure as a manager?
Tony La Russa: I think there was only one. There should have been more, except that in 2003 I worked with Buzz Bissinger [on the book Three Nights in August], and that gave me my first chance to really look back. When you manage, it’s always ‘what’s next, what’s next’? There was a lot of stuff I got to look at for the first time.
Probably the most noticeable thing I realized was that the most agonizing, difficult decision in my job wasn’t losing, it was having to drill a guy in retaliation. That’s the thing that beat me up worst. I didn’t realize how hard that was for me.
B/R: But with One Last Strike, you uncovered something new.
Tony La Russa: What I realized is that it wasn’t about wins. It wasn’t about championships. I found that the things I most value are the great, great number of relations that we built through our formula of respect, trusting and caring. I’ll give you a story: They retired my number, which I thought was premature. I told the owners I thought it was premature and they said they were still going to do it.
I got to invite 20 guys, so I went and asked people from the White Sox, A’s and Cardinals. One of the Cardinals who came was Ryan Franklin. Franklin was an effective closer [in 2010]. He had about 30 saves. The next year, he had some early stumbles, which created problems for our team. He’s a great guy and it really beat him up. We had to take him out of the closer role and in the end we had to release him.
Just to get him a break from everything we actually told him to go home, maybe come back in a month if you want and give it a try. Because we’d released him, he wasn’t there [when the Cardinals won the World Series]. That’s pretty hard. So I’m having this party for my jersey being retired, and Ryan Franklin was there. He put his arm around me and told me that he was just staggered by the camaraderie of all these different players and teams coming together.
Tony La Russa shows off his World Series hardware at the 2012 ESPYs
B/R: Are there players you struggled to get along with?
Tony La Russa: One of these days, I’m going to ask one of our public relations guys to count how many players there are. I don’t know what the number is. Let’s just say, for arguments sake, there are a thousand players.
Of those thousand players, there are probably four guys, maybe five, that if I were walking down the street, and I saw them, I’d go one way and they’d go the other. Five guys. That’s it. When I see the other 995, it’s a hugfest.
B/R: With the daily grind of managing behind you, what do plan to do with your time off…when you finally take some?
Tony La Russa: I’m really fortunate because the MLB and Commissioner Selig have allowed me to stay close to the game, which is what I know. I’m the Assistant for Special Assignments to the commissioner. What I’ve discovered is that I don’t miss managing. For 50 years (the first 16 as a player and the last 34 managing) there’s been a game, score, and a win or loss.
What I miss is the competition. I do believe, at some point, although I don’t know what the timing is going to be, I’m going to be in some team’s office. Not managing, but getting back into being excited about the team doing well or being upset because they did poorly. I’ve also talked about owning a bookstore. I love books.
St. Louis Cardinals legend Bob Gibson at his Hall of Fame induction
B/R: If you had to summarize your career in a single game, which one do you go with?
Tony La Russa: I’ve been around for too long to pick one. I’ll give you a few highlights. One was my very first year, in 1979, when I was given a chance to manage a team that was struggling. I was a lousy player with virtually no managing experience, and we went 27-27. When I first took over, we got off to a pretty good start, but then we started to struggle. And some of the guys who’d first responded to me, guys with guaranteed money, started to fall back into what got the guy before me fired.
I made a decision to bench those guys, and instead to play the guys who would play it like it was the seventh game of the World Series. These were some of our younger guys, bench guys, and it was three or four money guys who sat and watched. It was something that came to me because I’d played, and I’d player-coached, and I had a core principle, which was, if you watched a game and you saw a team that wasn’t playing hard, you took it personally.
I knew if I played those four guys instead of the money guys, you might be able to say that we weren’t any good, but you couldn’t say we weren’t trying. I did that, we won some games, the guys got into it and I survived. I may not have survived if we hadn’t won those games.
Another was my first World Series win in St. Louis. People don’t understand that when you’re managing in St. Louis, these legendary figures like Musial and Gibson come around and ask, ‘When are you going to join the club? When are you going to get one of these?’ and they’d point to their rings.
By 2006, I’d been in St. Louis for 10 years, and the day we finally won, Bob Gibson comes by and says, ‘You’re in the club.’ And then to win the series last year, how can you pick one? You can’t pick one. They’re all tied for first.