HE WAS the boy
wonder once, and if Tony La Russa hated that perception, hated how his youth
and a Florida State law degree put a big target on his back for the old-time
baseball men, it didn't erase the truth of the matter. He was a wonder all
right, a 38-year-old Chicago White Sox manager with Prince Valiant hair and
aviator shades, the very picture of cerebral cool. Who, after that 99-win
season in 1983, didn't know it? When the White Sox fired La Russa after a poor
start in '86, he still landed a job with the Oakland A's in just 13 days;
within two years he was ringmaster for the most glamorous team-- Jose Canseco,
Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley--in the game. Vegetarian, animal-rescue
activist, bilingual high priest of the hyperspecialized bullpen, early La Russa
crackled with grim intensity and a counterculture vibe.
But that was long
ago. Yes, last off-season La Russa got himself an elaborate tattoo, his first,
inked along his right shoulder, a tribal design his wife had spied on the arm
of one of her favorite drummers. Yes, at 62 he's still flat-bellied, and yes,
he still has most of that hair, now slightly gray (or more than slightly if
he's been hitting the dye bottle). But the tattoo, he insists, was the result
of keeping a long-standing promise to his two youngest daughters, a celebration
of his unlikely 2006 World Series title with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Considering that originally he had vowed to get an earring if he won another
Series, he'll take it. "There's a look of coolness there if I walk around
without my shirt, but if you look at me up close and personal?" La Russa
says. "Not cool."
could apply in many ways to La Russa these days. From the red-faced shame of
his drunken-driving arrest in March to the hot seat he occupies as his
bewildered team digs out from its worst start in 17 years to his threat to
"start swinging this fungo" bat at any reporters showing
"insincerity" in covering the April 29 drunken-driving death of St.
Louis reliever Josh Hancock, La Russa has been a study in human pyrotechnics.
He has seen the shattering of his enlightened image--already cracked by a 2005
admission that he had suspected Canseco was using steroids with the A's--and
heard his leadership doubted. Just months removed from reveling in the
Cardinals' 10th championship, won on the field of their new, $365 million
ballpark, La Russa has found himself the public focus of what team president
Mark Lamping calls "the most embarrassing period" of their 12 years
together in St. Louis.
No one could take
so bruising a fall without howling, and indeed, La Russa's response ranges from
bitterness to regret to rage to resignation--occasionally all at once. But he
won't say what seems obvious: Sometimes life comes at you like a landslide, and
you dodge one boulder only to get leveled by another. "I've now read this
word three or four times, and it's a perception that some people have that I
don't feel at all: embattled," he says, before a May 9 home stand finale
against the Colorado Rockies. "I don't feel embattled. As long as this
doesn't sound disrespectful, this is so routine for what a manager goes through
during a season. Now ... you don't have guys die. But the adversity? The ups
and downs? You're always trying to keep your wagons going--or you're circling
them trying to stay alive."
Even four hours
later in his Busch Stadium office, when he should be savoring a 9--2 win or
concentrating on dialing numbers into the cellphone in his lap, he's still
thinking about that word. "Believe me when I say it," La Russa says,
fingers still fiddling with the buttons. He's slumped in a folding chair, alone
and spent, and when he glances up the harsh light does its work: Suddenly the
man looks his age. "I am not embattled."
Say this for the
game: It can give you what you want. If you pay its price--if you sacrifice
your prime years and spend your downtime over a book in a restaurant while your
family grows and hurts and laughs 1,700 miles away, you can become one of the
greats. You can be Tony La Russa, with a ticket punched for the Hall of Fame.
You can stand in a ballpark with the sweet percussion of batting practice
filling the air, and it will all seem worth it.
"I don't have
a crystal ball for this afternoon, this season," he says. "And that
intrigue of whether we can piece it together and be good enough is a terrific
turn-on. The only thing right now that really grinds at me? The possibility
that we won't be good enough. If you could tell me we will be good enough to
contend, then you can shovel all the s--- you want onto us. I'm doing something
in the game I love for 40 years. How tough is that?"
In St. Louis, the
ultimate baseball town? For some, it can be paradise. Once a generation, like
clockwork, the Cardinals have produced champions and Hall of Famers. The city,
in turn, has cultivated a devotion that can be bracing and blind. Football may
have become the national pastime, but not around this particular bend of the
Mississippi. The tickets to Busch read BASEBALL HEAVEN, and few locals--and
even fewer of the pilgrims who travel hundreds of miles to get their yearly
taste--consider that an exaggeration.
As such, St.
Louis has always found a certain type of manager irresistible: the
plain-speaking lifer, timeless salts like former second baseman Red
Schoendienst and the brush-cut avatar Whitey Herzog. The fact that he wasn't
like the White Rat dogged La Russa throughout his first years in town, but
dealing with skeptics wasn't anything new. From the moment Bill Veeck tapped
him as Chicago's skipper at 34 in '79, La Russa was viewed by some as an
impostor. His big league playing career? A .199 batting average in 132 games in
six seasons spanning 10 years. His managing r�sum�? Running a Double A team for
part of one season and a Triple A team for part of the next. "Too cheap to
hire a real manager!" White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray said constantly of
Veeck's hire, and at his worst moments La Russa suspected he was right. He ran
scared but smart, gradually surrounding himself with coaches bearing the
credentials he lacked: batting coach Charley Lau, pitching coach Dave Duncan
and third base coach Jim Leyland, an old school hand, face already hollowed by
11 years in the minor league wilderness.
on like this," says La Russa, hands curled as if grasping a window ledge on
the 49th floor. "They had started to upgrade the club, so now there's
expectations. And the American League had these unbelievable giants, guys you
knew just by first name: Earl, Whitey, Sparky, Gene. And you're sitting there
wondering what you give your club versus what they give. So on almost a nightly
basis Jim and I would reconstruct the game and figure out what we could learn
from them. Jim was talking a helluva lot more than Tony was. Jim taught me to