Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Brush with greatness: Tony La Russa

There are certain advantages to being a beat writer for a major league team. By covering the team on a daily basis, you build a routine and a familiarity. You know the players. They know you. You know where to be, when to be there and how to get there. You know who to interview and who not to interview.

I have been a beat writer, but never for a major league team. All of my dealings with major leaguers have been an interview here or an interview there. And when those moments involved heading to a major league stadium, it was a bit tricky, because I was basically going in there blind, trying to figure out where everything was and the proper time to go to the locker room, to get on the field, etc.

That was never more apparent than when I interviewed Tony La Russa. It was in Montreal, where a lot of my interviews of major leaguers have been. It was the first weekend of the season. I had been to Olympic Stadium before, so I knew how to get on the field and where the visitor's locker room was. But once I got in the locker room, I was fairly clueless as to what I should do.

I saw La Russa immediately and I knew I needed to talk to him for my story. He was in the visitor's manager's office, sitting behind a desk. A reporter was sitting in a bench-type chair across from La Russa talking to him. They seemed to be having a pleasant conversation. And I could tell by the situation that this was a time to talk to the manager.

I waited until they were done, because I had a specific topic I wanted to address with him, and I knew the other reporter wouldn't be interested in it. So, the reporter got up and left, and I waited a minute and then walked into the office and sat in the chair. The look on La Russa's face changed 180 degrees. He looked at me like I was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein rolled into one.

I introduced myself, said what paper I was from and that I was there to do a story.

La Russa's reaction: "Yeah, so?" It was very intimidating. If you haven't noticed, La Russa can be an abrasive fellow. I guess he has to be at times in his position. But he's gotten into his fair share of disputes and is certainly a guy who won't back down.

I quickly tried to save myself by telling him I was there to do a story on Cardinals coach George Kissell, who was beloved by everyone in the Cardinals organization. I figured that would soften him up a bit. It did, but he began with kind of a know-it-all attitude, like "everyone knows about George Kissell. It's just common knowledge for people who are in baseball." He didn't say it exactly like that, but that's the vibe I got.

But the more I talked, the more La Russa warmed up to the topic. He gave me some great quotes and great information. And he gave me a good idea of who to talk to after I was finished talking to him, which is some of the best information you can get as a reporter. The whole story basically hinged on LaRussa. I had already talked to Kissell, but I wanted perspective from the people in the organization. La Russa gave me perspective and knowledge, and told me who I could talk to from a player's standpoint.

I walked out of there relieved but impressed with La Russa, even if he acted like he didn't like me very much. (He was more cordial at the end of the interview). I knew he was a smart guy before the interview, but there was absolutely no doubt after it.

There are some things that LaRussa does as a manager that I don't understand. I still like to blame him for the fact that starting pitchers can't go more than five innings anymore and that there has to be a new pitcher for every other batter in the late innings. The fact that they almost ran out of pitchers in the All-Star Game last year is not something that can be traced directly to La Russa (I think giant contracts for pitchers probably is a bigger factor). But I'd say his early manipulations of the pitching staff (or maybe it was Dave Duncan, I don't know), played a small part in it.

Still, you can't dispute that the guy is going to the Hall of Fame. When I wrote that Phil Niekro was the only Hall of Famer I had ever interviewed, with the possible exception of another player, I had forgotten about La Russa. So, there is Niekro and La Russa and another guy that I'll mention in the future.

But La Russa's definitely going in the Hall for his contributions with the Cardinals.

And the Oakland A's.

And the Chicago White Sox. I remember when he was named White Sox manager, and I had no idea who the guy was.

I definitely do now. I'll always remember that day in the visiting manager's office. La Russa could've thrown out the podunk reporter who he had never seen before. But he didn't. We ended up having a rather pleasant 15-minute conversation. And I ended up with one of the best stories I've ever written.


  1. If the Dodgers make it to the World Series this year, Torre should take LaRussa and Bobby Cox as his coaches for the 2010 All Star Game. It would be cool to see three future hall of fame managers in the same dugout.

  2. Torre's the kind of guy who would do that. Now, let's hope the Dodgers make the World Series!

  3. Man, that's an awesome story. Thanks for sharing that.

  4. Great story but it won't change my mind of Tony being an alcoholic who covered up for Canseco and McGwire's Steroid usage.

    Sorry, bitter fan here...

  5. No apology necessary, Mario. La Russa's got his problems. I agree.

  6. I'm not sure at what point a media member came to his house, drank his last drop of orange juice, broke his telelvision remote, insulted his wife and kicked his dog... but I'd like to know.

    I also can't think of any managers to this day who have outed their players for using PEDs. You'd be insane to think that would ever happen.