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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."
Not cool--that 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.
"I'm holding 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 manage."