In late May 1983,
his fifth season as White Sox manager, La Russa's tactics began to click. It
didn't matter in the eyes of one old-timer. The All-Star Game that year was
held in Chicago, at Comiskey Park, but the American League manager, 52-year-old
Harvey Kuenn of the Milwaukee Brewers, derided La Russa as "the
barrister" and didn't extend the traditional courtesy of naming the
hometown skipper a coach. "He thought I really wasn't a baseball man,"
La Russa says. "It hurt, it was embarrassing, but I understood. Because I
think that's a wonderful standard to earn: the baseball man."
His acceptance of
the snub couldn't have been more telling. Though he had already made his mark
as one of the most unorthodox, aggressive managers working, La Russa is no
radical. Like every baseball fanatic growing up around Tampa, he'd heard about
the area's ultimate baseball man, Al Lopez, the unpretentious Hall of Fame
manager. La Russa's father had always pointed to Lopez as the example to
follow, and why not? Tony Sr. had been a good catcher once, just like Lopez; in
fact, the people who saw him in his prime said that he played like Lopez too.
But Tony Sr.'s family needed him to work. He gave up the sport in his teens and
became a milkman for 25 years, awake at 2:30 a.m. every day.
But his son? Tony
Jr. had talent and a father who wouldn't let him waste it; on Saturdays his dad
would bring him along on his runs out to the airport, telling him, "I don't
want this for you." Later, no matter what his son's place in the standings,
Tony Sr. would tell him, "You're Number 1. You're the Number 1 manager in
five-game win over Leyland's Detroit Tigers in the World Series cemented La
Russa's place among the game's legends. He had already climbed into third place
behind Connie Mack and John McGraw on the alltime wins list, but now he
achieved what only his idol, Sparky Anderson, had done: managed a team in both
leagues to a title. Of course, La Russa doesn't dwell on that accomplishment;
neither Sparky nor any other self-respecting baseball man would put himself
above the team. But those close to him know.
His older sister,
Eva Fojaco, walked into La Russa's office after the final game and couldn't
believe, suddenly, how different he looked. She was his only surviving family.
Their mother, Oliva, who played catch with her son for hours in the alley next
to their apartment, died in 1998. Tony Sr. passed away four years later, laid
out in his casket wearing a Cardinals cap. The family had always been with Tony
before: through the hard times in Chicago, when La Russa wore that bulletproof
vest in the dugout because of a death threat in '82, through the first World
Series title in Oakland in '89. Now only Eva was left.
Like a kid again,
she realized. Her brother looked like a kid. She hugged him and, echoing their
dad, said, "You're Number 1."
He gripped her
tight, tears welling, voice going hoarse. "They were there with me," La
La Russa signed
with the Kansas City A's on the night of his Jefferson High graduation, a
$50,000 bonus-baby shortstop soon forced by injuries to take each "Play
ball!" as a primal test. Before a playoff game with Class A Modesto in
1966, he was so spooked by his aching arm and dodgy throwing that he decided to
fake being sick to avoid being embarrassed. That he had allowed himself to
consider such a thing made him a bit crazy; he changed his mind, then drove to
the park and played in a self-loathing fury.
How do you live with yourself? How do you face yourself knowing that you didn't
have the guts?" La Russa says. He got three hits, a ninth-inning grand slam
to seal the win and a life lesson: When in doubt, when in fear, be aggressive.
Commit yourself, and never look back.
For 16 years he
tried to make it as a big league infielder, unsparing of himself and everyone
around him. Oliva had always preached the value of education, so each
off-season for seven years La Russa worked toward completing his undergrad
education at South Florida; that done, he spent five years going to law school.
His marriage to Luzette Sarcone fell apart after eight years in 1973, and two
psychologists advised--with agreement by both sides--that La Russa have "no
personal or telephonic contact" with his two daughters, five-year old
Andrea and four-year-old Averie, until they could make an "independent
determination" about his role in their lives.