He is writing again, this time at the desk in the visiting
manager's office at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, one more
place the 51-year-old man has not been before. Tony La Russa is
always writing. Before him lie a handful of blue lineup cards,
all of them with the same soft crease where he folded them
around his pen before stuffing them in the back pocket of his
uniform pants. The cards are crammed with marginalia, the notes
he jots down in his tiny handwriting during games.
Now he is transcribing those notes into a spiral-bound notebook
with a plain white cover. The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals
has already exhausted three of these books in only half a
season. Unshaved, cloistered in this cell made of concrete
blocks, he has the look of a cartographer working below decks on
a ship that is sailing uncharted seas. And that is why he goes
on writing. La Russa is mapping his New World.
"I never did this before this year," he says. He is talking
about keeping detailed records, but he might just as well be
talking about managing in the National League--dealing with the
subtleties of the double switch, the complexities of having a
pitcher in the lineup instead of a designated hitter, the
challenge of getting roughly 14% fewer runs per game than in the
American League and the perils of having to learn the boiling
points of a new group of umpires. After managing 2,503 games
(with a .527 career winning percentage) and winning three
pennants and a world championship in 17 seasons with the Chicago
White Sox and the Oakland Athletics, La Russa is managing in the
senior circuit for the first time. And he's succeeding. At the
All-Star break the Cardinals were in first place in the National
League Central with a record of 46-41 (.529), one percentage
point ahead of the Houston Astros. That's a fast-forward
improvement; St. Louis finished 19 games below .500 last year
and had not been in first place at the break since 1987.
The Cardinals took three of four games from the Pirates in
Pittsburgh at the end of last week, further demonstrating that
after getting off to a frosty start together, La Russa and this
reengineered team have learned their lessons well. The Cardinals
went 24-12 from May 29 till the break, the best in the league in
July 14, 1996
"I feel better than I did when the season started," La Russa
says, "which is still not good." Woody Allen has played
characters with a higher comfort level than La Russa usually
exhibits. La Russa's micromanaging style--some have called it
overmanaging--has fared well in the National League. Last
Thursday in Pittsburgh he changed pitchers with two outs in the
ninth inning and a six-run lead. The next night he yanked
reliever Dennis Eckersley, a closer with Hall of Fame
credentials, with two outs in the ninth and a three-run lead.
The Cardinals won both games. La Russa hasn't used the same
batting order in two straight games all season, and St. Louis
tied a National League record earlier this season by using six
pitchers in a shutout win.
La Russa is as thorough as a third coat of paint. He lifted
Eckersley, for instance, because he remembered that Al Martin,
who was due up for the Pirates, had cracked a home run off Eck
in spring training. "He doesn't miss anything," says Ron Hassey,
La Russa's bench coach, who spent the past three seasons
coaching with the Colorado Rockies. "He's always writing. I
think he notes when I go to the bathroom."
Their recent run to first place has made the Cardinals more
comfortable with their manager, but there were adjustments to be
made along the way. After six seasons under the more relaxed
hand of Joe Torre, the Cards had to adjust to the fiery La
Russa. Says Eckersley, one of six Cardinals who played for La
Russa in Oakland, "At first it was kind of rough. We'd be up
5-1, 6-1, and guys would be high-fiving and styling in the
dugout, and all of a sudden Tony would yell, 'Hey!' Maybe he was
yelling at the runner, but he'd get the message across. When
you've got a team down, you've got to step on its throat."
In one game La Russa sent in outfielder Willie McGee as part of
a double switch, instructing McGee to tell rightfielder Brian
Jordan to move to first base. Jordan, who had played first base
only once in his career, thought McGee was joking. He jogged in
and planted himself on the bench. La Russa rousted him and told
him, "Yes, you are playing first base." The Cardinals have
learned that their manager is not a kidder. He may have many
tricks in his bag, but there is no whoopee cushion.
"I think it's getting better," says Jordan, the former Atlanta
Falcons defensive back, about playing for La Russa. "I think it
was a little intimidating at first. I mean, this guy is Jerry
Glanville [the former Falcons coach]. He's got that type of
intensity. It's good to see that in baseball. To a point."
St. Louis fell to a season-low 17-26 on May 19, the day the
Colorado Rockies finished a three-game sweep of the Cards in
Denver. St. Louis was winning the second game of that series 8-4
in the ninth inning and had Eckersley on the mound, but Eck gave
up homers to Ellis Burks and John Vander Wal and lost the game
9-8. "That was as devastated a clubhouse as you're ever going to
find," La Russa says.
But this veteran team bounced back by sweeping three games from
the Astros in Houston, starting its climb to the top of the
Central Division. When the Cardinals beat the Pirates 9-5 last
Saturday to move into first place, La Russa celebrated by
grunting, "I ain't saying s--- about first place or anything
else.... I think we've been playing good for a long time, six
weeks or so. That's what I feel good about."
Despite his unyielding style, La Russa clearly is enjoying the
challenge of a league that requires more button pushing during
games. "If you're a casual sports fan, you probably like the DH
better, because there's more action," he says. "But if you're a
real baseball fan and appreciate the subtleties of the game,
there's no doubt that National League baseball is more
interesting. If there's a double switch, the casual fan will
say, Who cares? Someone else who understands more of the game
could argue about the switch for hours."
When La Russa tried one of his first double switches, on April
5, he botched it. In the 11th inning of a game in Atlanta, he
headed toward home plate umpire Greg Bonin to inform him of the
move but motioned to the bullpen before reaching the umpire.
That violated the rule that the manager must notify the umpire
first, and Bonin disallowed the double switch. Welcome to the
National League, Skip.
"We're always reminded to help move the game along, and that's
what I thought I was doing," La Russa says. "I think what the
umpires were doing was letting me know that you have to be on
your toes and know the letter of the law, which is fine."
Since then La Russa has placed his imprint on the Cardinals, a
grinding, opportunistic team. Only four teams have more
sacrifice hits than St. Louis. Last Thursday, for instance,
number 3 hitter Ron Gant went to bat in the third inning with no
outs, teammate Ray Lankford on second and a 2-0 lead--and he
bunted. To all appearances it was just the kind of thing that
would be a rarity in the American League, where going for the
big inning is more the rule.
"The sign was to get the runner over any way he could," La Russa
says. "Ron chose to bunt. I did the same thing with Oakland and
Jose Canseco. The game itself is really not that different in
Two innings later, with one out and Lankford on third after a
base on balls, a stolen base and a wild pitch, La Russa put on
the contact play--in which the runner breaks for home when the
batted ball hits the ground--even though Pittsburgh had its
infield in for a play at the plate. Jordan hit the ball directly
at second baseman Carlos Garcia, but Lankford, with a terrific
break at third, scored standing up when catcher Keith Osik
dropped Garcia's throw. Meanwhile Jordan dashed all the way to
second. He moved to third on a grounder and scored on a wild
pitch, giving St. Louis two runs in the inning without a hit.
In a 7-4 win the next night, the Cardinals stole five
bases--their most in a game in three years--including two in the
first inning when Lankford started a double steal with Jordan,
the cleanup hitter, batting. "I saw a big leg kick from the
pitcher and a way to get two runners in scoring position," says
Lankford, who ran on his own. "Early in the season it was more
like we'd go when Tony said go. But now we're getting more rope.
I think he sees we have smart, aggressive base runners who can
make things happen."
La Russa is loath to accept any accolades for his contribution
to the team's rise. His natural modesty intensified after George
Will's 1990 book Men at Work elevated him to the status of
managerial guru. He even cringes when he sees his picture on the
cover of this year's St. Louis media guide.
If La Russa doesn't want articles done on the occupant of the
manager's office, there are plenty of stories to be found in the
swaggering Cardinals clubhouse. This is a team with 18 world
championship rings among its players and coaches. The top of the
lineup--shortstop Royce Clayton, Lankford, Gant and Jordan--can
carve up a defense in more ways than a Swiss Army knife. These
players have swiped 52 bases in 69 chances. Jordan has been
especially dangerous; after hitting .042 (2 for 48) with runners
in scoring position two years ago, he is batting .400 in such
situations this season.
The Cardinals have feasted on the Pirates, taking six straight
games from them in a nine-day span before losing 8-2 on Sunday.
La Russa found the wins uncomfortable, though, because they came
against one of his best friends, Pirates manager Jim Leyland.
"At the end of a game someone's always going to be suffering,"
La Russa said. "And you don't like to see a friend suffer."
The two managers, born less than three months apart in 1944, go
back together to the Southern League in 1967, when La Russa,
then a second baseman for Birmingham, noticed a certain presence
about Leyland, the second-string catcher for Montgomery. In his
fourth season as manager of the White Sox, in 1982, La Russa
added Leyland to his staff. "Jimmy's always had the gift of
being able to chew somebody out today and be laughing with him
tomorrow," says La Russa. "He was the one who told me in 1982
that I had to let the players see the other side of me, a
lighter side, or else they would flame out."
Now in the same division the two friends have had to cut down on
their frequent conversations. When they ring each other, they
are so circumspect, it's as if the phone were bugged. They avoid
talking about their own personnel and about players they would
like to obtain.
La Russa's awkwardness about beating the Pirates is likely to
find its way into one of those white spiral notebooks. It's
funny, La Russa has noticed when he has reread the books, how he
finds anger in his words after the losses and a less strident
tone after the wins. "Almost just like a diary," he says. Every
day the log of the journey grows; every day another mile is