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Dark Times For a Baseball Man
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June 04, 2007
A DUI arrest. A pitcher's death. A horrendous start to the season. Only seven months after a World Series triumph that sealed his place among the greats, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is calling on all his smarts to cope with crises on and off the field
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June 04, 2007

Dark Times For A Baseball Man

A DUI arrest. A pitcher's death. A horrendous start to the season. Only seven months after a World Series triumph that sealed his place among the greats, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is calling on all his smarts to cope with crises on and off the field

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The Canseco cloud followed La Russa to St. Louis, of course; he couldn't have been prouder of McGwire and his 1998 assault on the home run record. When Canseco alleged that he had injected McGwire with steroids in Oakland, La Russa remained Big Mac's staunchest defender. But he backpedaled at last on Canseco, admitting in a February 2005 interview on 60 Minutes that he'd heard from other A's about Canseco's use of a steroid "helper."

"Of course he knew," Canseco said then of La Russa's admission. "He made a fool of himself; he contradicted himself; he went back on what he'd said. It's simple: La Russa sees Mark as a son. He attracts all the fans and what happens? He breaks the alltime home run record! That solidified their relationship. And then it's like if your son was in trouble. You'd lie to save his life."

La Russa says he still "absolutely" believes that McGwire never used steroids and attributes the slugger's muscle mass to a combination of diet and work ethic. "To this day, five or six days a week, you call him in the morning, he's just finished his workout," La Russa says. "He looks like he could play today. That's why I keep asking him to."

Clearly, La Russa has never gotten religion on steroids; he insists it's a more complicated issue than commonly portrayed. And he takes a perverse pride in being the whipping boy for management blindness on the issue. "I'm happy about that," he says. "If somebody wants to discredit--have at it, man. That's good."

Why? La Russa says that because he gets so much credit as the third-ranked manager of all time, he should take a disproportionately large hit on steroids. Such logic seems twisted for a trained legal mind, but La Russa never set out to be Clarence Darrow. His outside interests, Alderson says, "are basically ... I don't want to suggest they're superficial, but they don't ultimately go to the essence of his personality."

In 1995, when he opted out of his contract with Oakland, La Russa could have done something else--practiced law, become a full-time fund-raiser for ARF, stayed in the Bay Area with his wife and daughters. He decided instead to head to St. Louis, to plunge into the heart of the game. While happy to become the thinking man's manager for yet another best seller, Buzz Bissinger's 2005 Three Nights in August, he still tries hard to make it seem as if he's just tilting back in a busted chair in some Double A town, chewing on a pencil. "I'm so untechnical," La Russa says. "I don't use a laptop. I just write s--- down."

Walking to his office after batting practice, La Russa receives a CD of pictures from a photographer, who tells him to insert it into a computer and right-click on the icon.

"What's a right-click?" La Russa says.

The Cardinals limped into the 2006 playoffs with only 83 wins, a team softened by injury and with a manager seemingly incapable of maneuvering in the clutch. Sure, La Russa had earned a 1989 World Series ring with the A's, but as his detractors liked to say, it took an earthquake in San Francisco for him to win it. The three other times he had won pennants--twice in Oakland, once in St. Louis--his supremely gifted teams fizzled in the Series. He had amassed more victories than any other Cardinals manager except Schoendienst but, well, so what? Fans were getting impatient, and his predictable unpredictability still drove purists nuts. Sometimes La Russa would use the hit-and-run with his big bat, first baseman Albert Pujols; sometimes, for long stretches even, he'd hit his pitcher eighth. The criticism was hardly new: Tony overmanages. Tony tries to show how smart he is. Tony is so tight, so controlling, that his teams implode.

"People would say, 'Oh, he's just trying to invent the game, trying to do something nobody else does,'" says former first baseman Tino Martinez, who played with St. Louis in 2002 and '03 and is now an assistant coach at South Florida. "He thought his best way to win that day was to sacrifice the catcher so the pitcher comes up--the kind of moves you think are crazy when you're playing for him. There's a reason behind it: The pitcher's usually going to lay a bunt down regardless ... and you don't realize Tony's trying to stay out of a double play and turn the lineup over for the next inning. Now that I'm coaching, I realize a lot of the things I thought were strange were really good moves. I wished I had realized it when I was playing for him."

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