He is writing again, this time at the desk in the visiting manager's office at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, one more place the 51-year-old man has not been before. Tony La Russa is always writing. Before him lie a handful of blue lineup cards, all of them with the same soft crease where he folded them around his pen before stuffing them in the back pocket of his uniform pants. The cards are crammed with marginalia, the notes he jots down in his tiny handwriting during games.
Now he is transcribing those notes into a spiral-bound notebook with a plain white cover. The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals has already exhausted three of these books in only half a season. Unshaved, cloistered in this cell made of concrete blocks, he has the look of a cartographer working below decks on a ship that is sailing uncharted seas. And that is why he goes on writing. La Russa is mapping his New World.
"I never did this before this year," he says. He is talking about keeping detailed records, but he might just as well be talking about managing in the National League—dealing with the subtleties of the double switch, the complexities of having a pitcher in the lineup instead of a designated hitter, the challenge of getting roughly 14% fewer runs per game than in the American League and the perils of having to learn the boiling points of a new group of umpires. After managing 2,503 games (with a .527 career winning percentage) and winning three pennants and a world championship in 17 seasons with the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland Athletics, La Russa is managing in the senior circuit for the first time. And he's succeeding. At the All-Star break the Cardinals were in first place in the National League Central with a record of 46-41 (.529), one percentage point ahead of the Houston Astros. That's a fast-forward improvement; St. Louis finished 19 games below .500 last year and had not been in first place at the break since 1987.
The Cardinals took three of four games from the Pirates in Pittsburgh at the end of last week, further demonstrating that after getting off to a frosty start together, La Russa and this reengineered team have learned their lessons well. The Cardinals went 24-12 from May 29 till the break, the best in the league in that span.
"I feel better than I did when the season started," La Russa says, "which is still not good." Woody Allen has played characters with a higher comfort level than La Russa usually exhibits. La Russa's micro-managing style—some have called it over-managing—has fared well in the National League. Last Thursday in Pittsburgh he changed pitchers with two outs in the ninth inning and a six-run lead. The next night he yanked reliever Dennis Eckersley, a closer with Hall of Fame credentials, with two outs in the ninth and a three-run lead. The Cardinals won both games. La Russa hasn't used the same batting order in two straight games all season, and St. Louis tied a National League record earlier this season by using six pitchers in a shutout win.
La Russa is as thorough as a third coat of paint. He lifted Eckersley, for instance, because, he remembered that Al Martin, who was due up for the Pirates, had cracked a home run off Eck in spring training. "He doesn't miss anything," says Ron Hassey, La Russa's bench coach, who spent the past three seasons coaching with the Colorado Rockies. "He's always writing. I think he notes when I go to the bathroom."
Their recent run to first place has made the Cardinals more comfortable with their manager, but there were adjustments to be made along the way. After six seasons under the more relaxed hand of Joe Torre, the Cards had to adjust to the fiery La Russa. Says Eckersley, one of six Cardinals who played for La Russa in Oakland, "At first it was kind of rough. We'd be up 5-1, 6-1, and guys would be high-fiving and styling in the dugout, and all of a sudden Tony would yell, 'Hey!' Maybe he was yelling at the runner, but he'd get the message across. When you've got a team down, you've got to step on its throat."
In one game La Russa sent in outfielder Willie McGee as part of a double switch, instructing McGee to tell rightfielder Brian Jordan to move to first base. Jordan, who had played first base only once in his career, thought McGee was joking. He jogged in and planted himself on the bench. La Russa rousted him and told him, "Yes, you are playing first base." The Cardinals have learned that their manager is not a kidder. He may have many tricks in his bag, but there is no whoopee cushion.
"I think it's getting better," says Jordan, the former Atlanta Falcons defensive back, about playing for La Russa. "I think it was a little intimidating at first. I mean, this guy is Jerry Glanville [the former Falcons coach]. He's got that type of intensity. It's good to see that in baseball. To a point."
St. Louis fell to a season-low 17-26 on May 19, the day the Colorado Rockies finished a three-game sweep of the Cards in Denver. St. Louis was winning the second game of that series 8-4 in the ninth inning and had Eckersley on the mound, but Eck gave up homers to Ellis Burks and John Vander Wal and lost the game 9-8. "That was as devastated a clubhouse as you're ever going to find," La Russa says.