Tony La Russa St. Louis's New Manager Talks About Changing Leagues And Changes In The Game
It is a typical off-season day for Tony La Russa. A morning
meeting with the Bay Area-based Animal Rescue Foundation, which
he and his wife, Elaine, founded in 1991 to facilitate the
adoption of unwanted animals. An afternoon stop in nearby Walnut
Creek at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, where La
Russa chats with the director of the upcoming performance of
Phantom. And at night, the Golden State Warriors-Utah Jazz game
at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
La Russa is a man for all seasons and interests, and now, all
leagues. After managing 17 years in the American League, the
last 10 with the Oakland A's, La Russa left last fall for a
two-year deal (with an option for a third year) to direct the
St. Louis Cardinals. He brings three manager of the year awards,
five AL West titles, three AL pennants and one World Series
championship, as well as a desire to win that has been missing
in St. Louis in the '90s. Since La Russa took the job on Oct.
23, the Cardinals (thanks mostly to a new, generous ownership
group, which has spent millions to upgrade the team, adding
outfielder Ron Gant, pitchers Dennis Eckersley, Todd Stottlemyre
and Andy Benes, and infielders Royce Clayton, Gary Gaetti and
Mike Gallego, among others) have gone from a noncontender to
perhaps the best team in the NL Central.
During a recent interview with SI senior writer TIM KURKJIAN, La
Russa talked about his new team, his new league, his criticisms
of baseball players in the '90s and the delicate situation
involving aging Cardinals great Ozzie Smith. As always, the
51-year-old La Russa was passionate, humble and respectful of
the game, but this was a different La Russa: He was more
anxious, a little unsure of what lay ahead, out of his comfort
zone. He will enter spring training not knowing the league, its
ballparks, its umpires or most of its players, including his
own. It may be his greatest challenge as a manager, but La Russa
has never been one to back down from a test. And few learn faster.
SI: How much did the great tradition of the Cardinals lure you
to this job?
TL: I've always been aware of the Cardinals tradition. If I'd
gone to an expansion franchise where there were fan expectations
and potential personal embarrassment if I did a poor job, that
would have been enough of a burden. When you add to it the
tremendous history of this franchise, it raises the stakes
another few points. But I'm more excited than I've ever been. We
have a chance to have a very good club.
SI: What was it like leaving the A's?
TL: Very hard. All my memories are great ones. I knew they were
going to have to retrench and rebuild. I felt like I deserted
them at a bad time. I didn't like that feeling.
SI: How about leaving the American League?
TL: It was hard. I like the American League. I've talked to
[Pirates manager] Jim Leyland over the years, and we've agreed
that the expertise you pick up in a league is an important edge
that we didn't want to give up. A year ago at this time, I would
have bet that I wouldn't move.
SI: So there's an uneasiness about switching leagues?
TL: There are always concerns. It always bugged me to bring in a
new player on the A's. It takes a period of time before you
understand where the guy is strongest and weakest. You might
lose a couple of games figuring that out.
SI: Is managing in the AL harder than people think?
TL: The AL can lull you to sleep or into a false sense of
security. There's a lot more to managing in that league than the
average person cares to admit. There's no doubt in my mind that
it's more difficult to handle pitchers in the AL than in the NL,
strictly because [in the American League] you never have the
game situation dictate your move. It's always based on your
judgment of who's the best pitcher for that situation. There are
a lot of tough calls. Occasionally in the NL those calls are
taken out of your hands by the game situation. I've seen
starting pitchers [in the American League] burned out sooner
than they have to be because you're not forced to take them out.
Also, you have nine hitters in the lineup, so you potentially
have offensive decisions every inning. You've got deeper lineups
to defend against in the AL. Plus those [smaller] AL ballparks
will challenge the hell out of you.
SI: How do you feel about matching up with the managers in the
TL: When I started managing in 1979, I had zero experience.
Everywhere you looked in the American League, there was a
manager who was a giant, guys you refer to only by their first
name: Whitey, Sparky, Billy, Earl, Gene. But from '80 to '96,
there has been a tremendous transition in the American League.
There are a lot of really good managers, but most are looking to
make their mark. But in the NL, look at the managers: [Bobby]
Cox, [Jim] Fregosi, Leyland, [Rene] Lachemann, Dallas [Green],
Dusty [Baker], Don Baylor. To me, it's like a time warp. I'm
going back into a league where there are a lot of managers who
are really outstanding, and you feel there's a gap between what
they give their club and what you give yours. Our attitude is to
sprint like hell to narrow that gap.
SI: What's the most important thing about managing?
TL: Your major responsibility, by far, is to get the players to
play hard for you. You do it, more than anything else, with
sincerity. If you get too strategic in your thinking and forget
the people side of the game, even for a little bit, you end up
SI: Is there any player whom you couldn't get through to? Jose
Canseco? Ruben Sierra? Rickey Henderson?
TL: In 18 years of managing, there were three guys that I just
couldn't stand. I won't name them--that's not my style--but Jose,
Ruben and Rickey are not among those three. The three I'm
talking about were actually bankrupt; they couldn't care less.
Ruben, Rickey, Jose ... we had some public disagreements,
situations where I thought they were doing less than their best
for themselves and the team. But there were also times when they
did their professional part for the team.
SI: You lashed out publicly at Sierra last year, calling him
"the village idiot" after he made disparaging remarks about A's
G.M. Sandy Alderson. What happened there?
TL: Ruben has a lot of goodness to him, but he's also a willing
victim to this '90s b.s. attitude. You sink your heart and
emotions into the progress of your ball club, and that gives you
the courage to confront some of the game's biggest stars. When
he got careless and made those comments, it upset me. I snapped.
I could have stopped after a word or two, but I didn't.
SI: What is "this '90s b.s."?
TL: I've always handled things behind the scenes. In the '80s,
that worked. You could talk to guys privately and make sense to
them. In the '90s, the stuff you do privately isn't making
nearly the dent it used to. There's this fantasy out there for
the players: They're not accountable; they can blame it on
"their people"; they have entourages that tell them they're
right when they're wrong. We're doing all this stuff privately,
but we're not getting the response that we used to get. More and
more players are ignoring it because their public stance is
still unprofessional. The young players used to come to the
veterans and say, "Show me the ropes." It was a beautiful
system. Now the young kids are coming in and seeing guys who are
not totally professional. That's who they're learning from, and
you're teaching the opposite.
SI: Is there an image problem in baseball?
TL: Yes. At some point, the public response has to improve with
a great many players. They have to be more like the true
veterans: [Don] Mattingly, [Cal] Ripken, [Paul] Molitor, [Kirby]
Puckett. I spent 1 1/2 hours with Puckett the other day. I was
thinking, "I wish I was taping this. This is how the players are
supposed to be." They come out to play, play hard; the money
just happens. A lot of these guys have to improve their
attitudes. You look at the lack of respect for veteran players.
Young guys come in and say, "Who's that guy?" Well, he played 10
years in the big leagues. The young guy asks, "How much did he
make, $100,000?" I saw that happen in our clubhouse. It's about
respect. Damn it, we're supposed to uphold that. I'm bound and
determined to go into St. Louis and tell the Cardinals that I
want them to be like the Cardinals were in Whitey Herzog's day,
Pepper Martin's day, Enos Slaughter's day, Stan Musial's day. If
you can't buy that, we're going to ask you to leave--or the
owner will ask me to leave.
SI: How do we improve the image problem?
TL: It has to begin with sincerity. The players have to say,
"This is something I really want to do every day, all year."
It's not going to be easy. A great majority of fans, from
diehards to casual observers, are generally tired of the b.s.
They're going to stay away if they have any excuse. People will
say, "You mean they're not playing .900 ball in Cleveland?" If
Cleveland slips, people aren't going to come out there. They
have some attitudes on that club. I'm not picking on Cleveland,
you see that all over baseball. If a fan has any excuse not to
come out, he's not going to, because he's not in love with the
game and its players. Our job is to make people fall in love
with the game. And it starts with the players.
SI: The owners are making some changes to win back the fans. How
do you feel about interleague play?
TL: If the fans like it, I like it.
SI: Shouldn't there be uniformity with the designated hitter?
TL: Absolutely. I said that before interleague play. It's an
embarrassment to the game that both leagues don't play by the
same rules. But I don't care as long as the fans like it this
way. Overall, though, the National League picks up an advantage
[in interleague play without a DH in NL parks] because their
pitcher is used to being part of the action.
SI: Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith has to fight for a job this
spring with Royce Clayton. Will that be a touchy situation for
TL: Heading into spring training, my biggest concern is Ozzie.
Whoever plays the best plays the most--is that a respectful way
to treat the guy who might be the greatest defensive shortstop
of all time? Absolutely not. I have a real interest in
perpetuating the Ozzie legend. But this is 1996. My main
responsibility is to help the Cardinals win as many games as
they can. That means the best players have to play. I'm really
concerned with making that evaluation. I'm anxious to talk to
Ozzie and say, "Man, do you understand this? These are the
stakes." I know this is true: More Cardinals fans are interested
in having the Cardinals do well than in any one player being
catered to. So I would really hate to see Ozzie mess with his
legend status by taking away from his reputation at the end of
SI: How do you size up the NL races?
TL: Being new to the league and this team, our concentration is
so much on the Cardinals, we're not spending that much time
looking at other teams.
SI: How about the AL?
TL: In the Central, there's a substantial gap that clubs have to
close to catch Cleveland. I've seen it done, but it depends how
much money you're able to spend. If you're limited in spending,
it's going to be tough to close that gap. In the East, there are
some very interesting combinations, like [G.M. Pat] Gillick and
[manager Davey] Johnson in Baltimore. I really like those two
together. In New York, with [G.M. Bob] Watson and [manager Joe]
Torre, there's a lot of savvy. Plus there's the team that won it
last year [Boston]. [G.M. Dan] Duquette has a good feel too. In
the West, it's wide open. Seattle is restructuring its club,
especially in the bullpen after trading [Bill] Risley and [Jeff]
Nelson. The Angels are a year older; they have just as good a
chance as last year. I can see Texas in there with [third
baseman Dean] Palmer back [from injury]. Even the A's--they're
not very deep, but they have a very competitive every-day club.
SI: What has been your biggest thrill in baseball?
TL: When the last out was made and we won the 1989 World Series.
SI: And your biggest disappointment?
TL: In retrospect, losing to the Dodgers in five games [in the
'88 Series]. At the time, though, I didn't feel as bad as I did
in '90 when we got beat by Cincinnati. Both '90 and '88 are
really, really downers to think about. Really embarrassing.
Those games are as vivid to me today as they were a couple of
days after they happened. I still sit in my room and think to
myself, How in the hell did you screw that up?