Thursday, October 04, 2012

Longtime baseball manager never gave up, never gave in

By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News &
San Jose Mercury News
October 2, 2012
Even in this age of ultra-rich celebrity athletes, sports still can inspire us with rare, truly heroic moments. In baseball, over the past several decades, many of those moments have come from teams managed by Tony La Russa.

Bay Area sports fans recall La Russa guiding the Oakland A's to a 1989 crown. But it was with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals that La Russa achieved his most miraculous feat.

That injury-riddled team was down 10 1/2 games with a month to go. The postseason seemed like a distant dream. But La Russa led his club to one of the most amazing comebacks in baseball history. They made the playoffs in the very last game of the regular season and, after being down to their last strike, twice, they won the World Series.

La Russa, 68, chronicles that incredible, dramatic run in his new book, "One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season."

The account of overcoming long odds and seemingly insurmountable obstacles can inspire readers from any walk of life.

La Russa tells The Daily News, "People who have read the manuscript say there are strong leadership lessons in it, applying that concept of never give in, never give up. There are stories in there that apply across the board."

After 33 years of managing, La Russa retired, having racked up four Manager of the Year awards, six pennants and three World Series rings. The 2011 season was the perfect way to cap an illustrious career.
"It was like a fairy tale. And it's now a book. If you couldn't actually hit the button to replay the truth, somebody would have said 'You made that up. It was fiction. Hollywood.' It was ridiculous how it all came together and we were living the dream, which is to play and win a world championship."

In the campaign, La Russa turned negatives into positives, embracing the role of underdog to build the team's character.

"Once we got into the playoffs, we thought, 'Hey, everybody's got some warts and we've got as many pluses as anybody. And we've been fighting for our life. As long as we don't back off, that's created a real good competitive toughness that we'll carry into this.'

"The dramatic Game 6 in the World Series, being down to the last strike, the reality is, we went through something very similar to that five times in the month of September and early in the playoffs. So, by the time we got to Game 6, we had built up a real healthy attitude that we were just not going to be denied. And anything was possible. We just got more and more determined, more and more confident every time we overcame one of those elimination times."

La Russa relished the pressure cooker nature of pro sports.

"It's tough. Believe me, it's easier to go out there, thinking, 'Whatever happens, happens.' But you never win anything that way. We talk about that in the book -- the way you deal with mistakes so that you can learn from them, the way that you deal with adversity, because it happens to everybody. It's important to develop this toughness. And it's there for any person, any group of players, if they're willing to dig deep."

Being a winner, La Russa doesn't take losing easily.

"One thing about baseball, you don't have undefeated seasons. Somebody's going to win. Somebody's going to lose. And what you want to do is take your best shot, so that you have a chance to go forward. If somebody beats you, when you took your best shot, you tip your cap. It's simple. But it's a constant struggle and challenge for teams to not give in.

"Baseball is a great equalizer. The famous example, if you're a great hitter, you fail seven out of 10 times. So baseball will teach you humbleness and it'll break your heart. That's how it tests you. And then it'll give you a handful of those magical moments to make it all worthwhile. You've just got to be tough enough. And that club was as tough as it had to be."

It can be tougher to fire up the players in the mega-salary era.

"With guaranteed money and security, it's not that, innately, the players changed. It's that human nature was messed with, because now you had people seeking that fame and fortune and being encouraged to by their family, friends and agents. 'And, oh, by the way, how'd the team do?' So it's how to break through that group of distractions players feel now and focus on being the best pro and the best teammate you can be. You don't pursue the fame and fortune ahead of the team and the professional excellence. It's a constant battle. Trust me. That's the key to leadership now, to understand that you're waging that war every day, to get players' attention and persuade them to go about it in the right priority."

The "Moneyball" concept is a pet peeve for La Russa, who has always balanced statistics with the human factor.

"The value of 'Moneyball' has been exaggerated to the point where people have lost jobs. The analytics is an important tool for preparation, for study. But to claim that you can predict, based on a lineup and all the different variables of our game strategy, how you do offense, how you handle your pitching staff, that's where it breaks down, because each game has its own totally human-nature kind of variables that are not available in that way. If you could only have one -- great analytics or a great sense of understanding humans -- understanding the human being would kick the ass of the analytical people every stinkin' season."
Team chemistry can be at least as important as talent.

"It's a critical piece. It's all about relationships and establishing that triangle of respect, trust and caring. Believe me, when you play 162 games, you're with your teammates more than you are with your family."
La Russa and wife Elaine, parents of Bianca and Devon, still reside in Northern California. They operate the Animal Rescue Foundation, a 38,000-square-foot facility in Walnut Creek.

"The players were on me for years about my working harder and being more passionate about ARF than anything else. I'd tell them, 'Well, the animals are more worthwhile than you are,'" he says, chuckling. "We're 22 years old and we're going strong. ARF is a wonderful and demanding mistress."

La Russa also keeps busy handling special assignments for Major League Baseball's commissioner.
"I'm fortunate to be staying close to the game. But when you've spent 50 years, waking up in the morning, your life revolving around the score of the next game, that winning and losing is part of your DNA. I do not miss the dugout at all. But I do miss being excited about the winning and being disappointed about the losing. That's an adjustment."
La Russa nurtures optimism and determination, within himself, as well as in others.

"I don't think you're born with that stuff. If you're fortunate, you're provided with opportunities. My folks worked really hard to provide opportunities. And then, if you continually are mentored throughout your life and you're open-minded and understand that you need to learn, then you learn. And those things become part of what you are."

Email Paul Freeman at
Author book signing
Who: Tony La Russa
Where: Kepler's Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Information: 650-324-4321;

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