HE WAS the boywonder once, and if Tony La Russa hated that perception, hated how his youthand a Florida State law degree put a big target on his back for the old-timebaseball men, it didn't erase the truth of the matter. He was a wonder allright, a 38-year-old Chicago White Sox manager with Prince Valiant hair andaviator shades, the very picture of cerebral cool. Who, after that 99-winseason in 1983, didn't know it? When the White Sox fired La Russa after a poorstart 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-rescueactivist, bilingual high priest of the hyperspecialized bullpen, early La Russacrackled with grim intensity and a counterculture vibe.
But that was longago. 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 armof 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 ifhe's been hitting the dye bottle). But the tattoo, he insists, was the resultof keeping a long-standing promise to his two youngest daughters, a celebrationof his unlikely 2006 World Series title with the St. Louis Cardinals.Considering that originally he had vowed to get an earring if he won anotherSeries, he'll take it. "There's a look of coolness there if I walk aroundwithout my shirt, but if you look at me up close and personal?" La Russasays. "Not cool."
Not cool--thatcould apply in many ways to La Russa these days. From the red-faced shame ofhis drunken-driving arrest in March to the hot seat he occupies as hisbewildered 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 2005admission that he had suspected Canseco was using steroids with the A's--andheard his leadership doubted. Just months removed from reveling in theCardinals' 10th championship, won on the field of their new, $365 millionballpark, La Russa has found himself the public focus of what team presidentMark Lamping calls "the most embarrassing period" of their 12 yearstogether in St. Louis.
No one could takeso bruising a fall without howling, and indeed, La Russa's response ranges frombitterness to regret to rage to resignation--occasionally all at once. But hewon't say what seems obvious: Sometimes life comes at you like a landslide, andyou dodge one boulder only to get leveled by another. "I've now read thisword three or four times, and it's a perception that some people have that Idon't feel at all: embattled," he says, before a May 9 home stand finaleagainst the Colorado Rockies. "I don't feel embattled. As long as thisdoesn't sound disrespectful, this is so routine for what a manager goes throughduring a season. Now ... you don't have guys die. But the adversity? The upsand downs? You're always trying to keep your wagons going--or you're circlingthem trying to stay alive."
Even four hourslater in his Busch Stadium office, when he should be savoring a 9--2 win orconcentrating on dialing numbers into the cellphone in his lap, he's stillthinking 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, aloneand spent, and when he glances up the harsh light does its work: Suddenly theman looks his age. "I am not embattled."
Say this for thegame: It can give you what you want. If you pay its price--if you sacrificeyour prime years and spend your downtime over a book in a restaurant while yourfamily grows and hurts and laughs 1,700 miles away, you can become one of thegreats. 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 practicefilling the air, and it will all seem worth it.
"I don't havea crystal ball for this afternoon, this season," he says. "And thatintrigue of whether we can piece it together and be good enough is a terrificturn-on. The only thing right now that really grinds at me? The possibilitythat we won't be good enough. If you could tell me we will be good enough tocontend, then you can shovel all the s--- you want onto us. I'm doing somethingin the game I love for 40 years. How tough is that?"
In St. Louis, theultimate baseball town? For some, it can be paradise. Once a generation, likeclockwork, the Cardinals have produced champions and Hall of Famers. The city,in turn, has cultivated a devotion that can be bracing and blind. Football mayhave become the national pastime, but not around this particular bend of theMississippi. The tickets to Busch read BASEBALL HEAVEN, and few locals--andeven fewer of the pilgrims who travel hundreds of miles to get their yearlytaste--consider that an exaggeration.
As such, St.Louis has always found a certain type of manager irresistible: theplain-speaking lifer, timeless salts like former second baseman RedSchoendienst and the brush-cut avatar Whitey Herzog. The fact that he wasn'tlike the White Rat dogged La Russa throughout his first years in town, butdealing with skeptics wasn't anything new. From the moment Bill Veeck tappedhim as Chicago's skipper at 34 in '79, La Russa was viewed by some as animpostor. His big league playing career? A .199 batting average in 132 games insix seasons spanning 10 years. His managing résumé? Running a Double A team forpart of one season and a Triple A team for part of the next. "Too cheap tohire a real manager!" White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray said constantly ofVeeck's hire, and at his worst moments La Russa suspected he was right. He ranscared but smart, gradually surrounding himself with coaches bearing thecredentials he lacked: batting coach Charley Lau, pitching coach Dave Duncanand third base coach Jim Leyland, an old school hand, face already hollowed by11 years in the minor league wilderness.
"I'm holdingon like this," says La Russa, hands curled as if grasping a window ledge onthe 49th floor. "They had started to upgrade the club, so now there'sexpectations. And the American League had these unbelievable giants, guys youknew just by first name: Earl, Whitey, Sparky, Gene. And you're sitting therewondering what you give your club versus what they give. So on almost a nightlybasis Jim and I would reconstruct the game and figure out what we could learnfrom them. Jim was talking a helluva lot more than Tony was. Jim taught me tomanage."
In late May 1983,his fifth season as White Sox manager, La Russa's tactics began to click. Itdidn't matter in the eyes of one old-timer. The All-Star Game that year washeld in Chicago, at Comiskey Park, but the American League manager, 52-year-oldHarvey Kuenn of the Milwaukee Brewers, derided La Russa as "thebarrister" and didn't extend the traditional courtesy of naming thehometown skipper a coach. "He thought I really wasn't a baseball man,"La Russa says. "It hurt, it was embarrassing, but I understood. Because Ithink that's a wonderful standard to earn: the baseball man."
His acceptance ofthe snub couldn't have been more telling. Though he had already made his markas one of the most unorthodox, aggressive managers working, La Russa is noradical. Like every baseball fanatic growing up around Tampa, he'd heard aboutthe area's ultimate baseball man, Al Lopez, the unpretentious Hall of Famemanager. La Russa's father had always pointed to Lopez as the example tofollow, and why not? Tony Sr. had been a good catcher once, just like Lopez; infact, the people who saw him in his prime said that he played like Lopez too.But Tony Sr.'s family needed him to work. He gave up the sport in his teens andbecame a milkman for 25 years, awake at 2:30 a.m. every day.
But his son? TonyJr. had talent and a father who wouldn't let him waste it; on Saturdays his dadwould bring him along on his runs out to the airport, telling him, "I don'twant this for you." Later, no matter what his son's place in the standings,Tony Sr. would tell him, "You're Number 1. You're the Number 1 manager inthe game."
Last October'sfive-game win over Leyland's Detroit Tigers in the World Series cemented LaRussa's place among the game's legends. He had already climbed into third placebehind Connie Mack and John McGraw on the alltime wins list, but now heachieved what only his idol, Sparky Anderson, had done: managed a team in bothleagues to a title. Of course, La Russa doesn't dwell on that accomplishment;neither Sparky nor any other self-respecting baseball man would put himselfabove the team. But those close to him know.
His older sister,Eva Fojaco, walked into La Russa's office after the final game and couldn'tbelieve, suddenly, how different he looked. She was his only surviving family.Their mother, Oliva, who played catch with her son for hours in the alley nextto their apartment, died in 1998. Tony Sr. passed away four years later, laidout in his casket wearing a Cardinals cap. The family had always been with Tonybefore: through the hard times in Chicago, when La Russa wore that bulletproofvest in the dugout because of a death threat in '82, through the first WorldSeries title in Oakland in '89. Now only Eva was left.
Like a kid again,she realized. Her brother looked like a kid. She hugged him and, echoing theirdad, said, "You're Number 1."
He gripped hertight, tears welling, voice going hoarse. "They were there with me," LaRussa said.
La Russa signedwith the Kansas City A's on the night of his Jefferson High graduation, a$50,000 bonus-baby shortstop soon forced by injuries to take each "Playball!" as a primal test. Before a playoff game with Class A Modesto in1966, he was so spooked by his aching arm and dodgy throwing that he decided tofake being sick to avoid being embarrassed. That he had allowed himself toconsider such a thing made him a bit crazy; he changed his mind, then drove tothe park and played in a self-loathing fury.
"I thought,How do you live with yourself? How do you face yourself knowing that you didn'thave the guts?" La Russa says. He got three hits, a ninth-inning grand slamto seal the win and a life lesson: When in doubt, when in fear, be aggressive.Commit yourself, and never look back.
For 16 years hetried to make it as a big league infielder, unsparing of himself and everyonearound him. Oliva had always preached the value of education, so eachoff-season for seven years La Russa worked toward completing his undergradeducation at South Florida; that done, he spent five years going to law school.His marriage to Luzette Sarcone fell apart after eight years in 1973, and twopsychologists advised--with agreement by both sides--that La Russa have "nopersonal or telephonic contact" with his two daughters, five-year oldAndrea and four-year-old Averie, until they could make an "independentdetermination" about his role in their lives.
By all accounts,he has never had a relationship with them. The 2007 Cardinals media guide listsonly La Russa's 34-year marriage to his second wife, Elaine, and their twodaughters, Bianca and Devon. In a 1995 lawsuit dismissed by a New York SupremeCourt judge, Andrea and Averie demanded $16 million for the emotional distressof not being publicly recognized as La Russa's children. According to courtdocuments, the divorce papers stipulated that La Russa provide some financialsettlement but required no child support or long-term alimony. La Russa'slawyer stated that his client had offered early on to pay for and join incounseling sessions with his daughters, only to be rebuffed. Luzette, Andreaand Averie deny he made the offer, and the sisters contended in court papersthat La Russa had rejected their attempts to reestablish contact. Since thedivorce they have met with their father once, in 1995, in a Manhattan hotel,with lawyers present.
"The lawsuitwas a plea for attention, for acknowledgment," Andrea and Averie wrote inan e-mail last Thursday. "We realize now that that may not have been thebest way to handle the situation, but we were so hurt and angry. We guess wenever understood how he--who by many accounts is a great dad to ourhalf-sisters, a family man, a rescuer of animals--how he could have left hisfirst two daughters and never looked back."
La Russaattributes the breakup to discord between two dissimilar people who marriedyoung. "If it's a mistake and you stay there, I mean, there was going to besuffering," he says. "And the longer you stay, the more suffering thereis for everybody." His only regret? "I regret that there's three womenthat I affected. If I hadn't gotten married, that wouldn't be true."
But to the familyleft behind the reason seemed clear. "He left us," Averie said in heroriginal complaint, "because we were 'holding him back from his baseballcareer.'"
When La Russastarted managing, it got worse in a way. Any insecurities he had as a playerdoubled; his body had held him back then, but if La Russa failed now therewould be nothing to blame. It's as if he knew he had to outwork, outthink,outbaseball the baseball men; his pioneering use of statistical analysis--andlater video--and micromanagement of the bullpen all smacked of a man unable toleave anything to chance. Everything off the field became a lower priority.After Leyland became a manager, the two best friends would occasionally squareoff. They'd make plans to golf or grab dinner or a drink afterward, and toLeyland's great irritation, "if I beat him, he wouldn't go," Leylandsays, voice rising. "I was never like that: If we lost, I went. I used tokid him, 'What the f--- is wrong with you?'"
Elaine--and laterLa Russa himself--wondered the same thing. Early in the '83 season, when theWhite Sox were off to a lousy start, she checked into a hospital withpneumonia, but La Russa didn't go home to Sarasota to take care of Bianca andDevon. He asked his sister to fill in while he stayed in Chicago. "A hugemistake," La Russa says. "I went over the line."
While La Russa'sdevotion to the game hardly wavered, his interests changed after he joinedOakland in July 1986. Following Elaine's lead, he swore off meat and investedhimself in the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), taking in dozens of cats anddogs; in their Northern California home alone the couple now has 19. Bianca andDevon became dance devotees, and La Russa was seen wearing ballet T-shirts inclubhouse celebrations. George Will wrote a 1990 best seller, Men at Work,which portrayed La Russa as the epitome of the modern manager. La Russa readdense books (fiction during the summer, nonfiction in the off-season) andappeared yearly in charity recitals. He has been a dancing sugarplum in TheNutcracker, the Grim Reaper Rabbit in The Mad Hatter.
As the Cards'chairman of the board, Bill DeWitt Jr., puts it, "He's a Renaissanceman."
Still, push cometo shove, baseball man would knock Renaissance man on his ass--which is what LaRussa threatened to do to Canseco in 1986 after he failed to run out a groundball. La Russa's ploy was textbook managing: 1) Dress down player once or twicein private; 2) if transgression is repeated, call out player in front of teamand threaten physical harm; 3) make sure coaches are nearby to break it up,quick. His instinct, in fact, was always to follow baseball code to the letter,even when weighing the sanctity of the clubhouse against what would become thegame's most corrosive scandal.
It was La Russawho came to Canseco's defense after The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell firstaccused him of steroid use, in 1988. Later, when he heard that Canseco hadbragged about using steroids, La Russa never told his boss, Oakland presidentSandy Alderson, about it or about his suspicion that other A's--"less thana handful"--had gotten too big, too fast. "I'm not sure Tony would everadmit that you can be too protective of players," Alderson says. "Heperhaps sees his job description in some way requiring that from him as amanager."
The Canseco cloudfollowed La Russa to St. Louis, of course; he couldn't have been prouder ofMcGwire and his 1998 assault on the home run record. When Canseco alleged thathe had injected McGwire with steroids in Oakland, La Russa remained Big Mac'sstaunchest defender. But he backpedaled at last on Canseco, admitting in aFebruary 2005 interview on 60 Minutes that he'd heard from other A's aboutCanseco's use of a steroid "helper."
"Of course heknew," Canseco said then of La Russa's admission. "He made a fool ofhimself; 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? Hebreaks the alltime home run record! That solidified their relationship. Andthen it's like if your son was in trouble. You'd lie to save his life."
La Russa says hestill "absolutely" believes that McGwire never used steroids andattributes 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'sjust finished his workout," La Russa says. "He looks like he could playtoday. That's why I keep asking him to."
Clearly, La Russahas never gotten religion on steroids; he insists it's a more complicated issuethan commonly portrayed. And he takes a perverse pride in being the whippingboy for management blindness on the issue. "I'm happy about that," hesays. "If somebody wants to discredit--have at it, man. That'sgood."
Why? La Russasays that because he gets so much credit as the third-ranked manager of alltime, he should take a disproportionately large hit on steroids. Such logicseems twisted for a trained legal mind, but La Russa never set out to beClarence Darrow. His outside interests, Alderson says, "are basically ... Idon't want to suggest they're superficial, but they don't ultimately go to theessence of his personality."
In 1995, when heopted out of his contract with Oakland, La Russa could have done somethingelse--practiced law, become a full-time fund-raiser for ARF, stayed in the BayArea with his wife and daughters. He decided instead to head to St. Louis, toplunge into the heart of the game. While happy to become the thinking man'smanager for yet another best seller, Buzz Bissinger's 2005 Three Nights inAugust, he still tries hard to make it seem as if he's just tilting back in abusted chair in some Double A town, chewing on a pencil. "I'm sountechnical," La Russa says. "I don't use a laptop. I just write s---down."
Walking to hisoffice after batting practice, La Russa receives a CD of pictures from aphotographer, who tells him to insert it into a computer and right-click on theicon.
"What's aright-click?" La Russa says.
The Cardinalslimped into the 2006 playoffs with only 83 wins, a team softened by injury andwith a manager seemingly incapable of maneuvering in the clutch. Sure, La Russahad earned a 1989 World Series ring with the A's, but as his detractors likedto say, it took an earthquake in San Francisco for him to win it. The threeother times he had won pennants--twice in Oakland, once in St. Louis--hissupremely gifted teams fizzled in the Series. He had amassed more victoriesthan any other Cardinals manager except Schoendienst but, well, so what? Fanswere getting impatient, and his predictable unpredictability still drovepurists 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 hispitcher eighth. The criticism was hardly new: Tony overmanages. Tony tries toshow how smart he is. Tony is so tight, so controlling, that his teamsimplode.
"People wouldsay, 'Oh, he's just trying to invent the game, trying to do something nobodyelse 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. "Hethought his best way to win that day was to sacrifice the catcher so thepitcher comes up--the kind of moves you think are crazy when you're playing forhim. There's a reason behind it: The pitcher's usually going to lay a bunt downregardless ... and you don't realize Tony's trying to stay out of a double playand turn the lineup over for the next inning. Now that I'm coaching, I realizea lot of the things I thought were strange were really good moves. I wished Ihad realized it when I was playing for him."
In the 2006 NLDivision Series against the San Diego Padres, La Russa courted disaster when hepulled ace Chris Carpenter with a 5--1 lead in the seventh inning of Game 1 andwhen he yanked Jeff Weaver, pitching a two-hitter, after only five innings inGame 2. Both times La Russa threw in his lot with his relief corps--threerookies (Tyler Johnson, Josh Kinney, Adam Wainwright) and a second-year man(Randy Flores). "Take out your ace and go to four rookies? Take out a guypitching a two-hitter and go to four rookies?" says La Russa, groupingFlores with the others. "Either one of those [games] gets away, and itwould be: Tony, you screwed up another series."
But this time itworked. It all worked. His willingness to look past a player's reputation, toplay only those he believed gave him the best chance of winning, had earned himthe enmity of superstars such as Ozzie Smith, who since La Russa platooned himas a 41-year-old shortstop in 1996 has kept a conspicuous distance from theorganization. Concerned about the slump of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen,La Russa sat him almost all of Game 2 in the Championship Series against theNew York Mets. Rolen would stop talking to La Russa for five months after thebenching, but something clicked. Reinserted in the lineup in Game 3 of whatwould be a seven-game series, Rolen hit .278 for the rest of the NLCS and .421in the World Series, finishing off the Tigers with a clutch RBI single in theseventh inning of the clinching game. "I've played on better teams,talentwise, but [winning the World Series] ain't about that necessarily,"says Rolen, who reached a détente with La Russa in February. "I can't tellyou what it's about. But it happened."
Players wingames, of course. But in his small corner of the 2006 World Serieschampionship, La Russa and Duncan, his longtime pitching consigliere, did anunimpeachable job. "The best part about Tony? He's relentless, and he hasno fear," says Leyland, who did not speak to La Russa during the Series bymutual agreement. "And he doesn't let anything slip by. He's the mostcreative manager I've ever managed against. He'll do things other managerswon't. Hit-and-run with Pujols? I doubt many guys would; I can't rememberhit-and-running with [Barry] Bonds [while Leyland managed him in Pittsburgh].If his club isn't hitting, he's not afraid to try stuff to manufacture runs. Ithink he's an offensive genius."
But it's when LaRussa acts like a typical manager, hardwired with the game's byzantine codes ofretaliation or conduct, that eyebrows rise the highest. Take the case of KennyRogers. Early in Game 2 of the Series, the Tigers' lefty was caught by TVcameras with a dark residue on his pitching hand. Could it have been pine tar,applied to give Rogers a better grip on the ball? The Cardinals coachesmentioned it to the umpiring crew, but any inspection could come only upon arequest from La Russa. He never made one, explaining afterward that he was notgoing to "ask the umpire to go to the mound and undress the pitcher."Yet many wondered why La Russa, in the most competitive of moments, chose notto press a possible advantage. Did he want to avoid embarrassing Leyland?
La Russa snortsat the notion, calls it an attack on his character. Says Leyland, "I'm notgullible enough to believe that a lot of pitchers don't have something thatgives them a better grip on the ball, and neither was he. You accept somethings as a part of the game. I don't think anybody was cheating. There wouldbe nothing Tony La Russa wouldn't do if he felt the integrity of the game wasat stake. He wouldn't give a s--- who the other manager was."
At 12:26 a.m. onThursday, March 22, a police officer in the Cardinals' spring training town ofJupiter, Fla., approached the driver's-side window of an SUV that was stoppedpartly through an intersection, under a green light. The car was in drive.According to the police report, La Russa was asleep at the wheel, foot on thebrake, and a Breathalyzer administered later gauged his blood-alcohol level at.093, above the state's limit of .08. La Russa admitted to having two glassesof wine at a dinner with friends, which came after an exhausting 48-hour periodinvolving little sleep, a day game after a night game and a quick trip to NewYork City for a fund-raiser. No matter: To a man obsessed with maintaining anaura of authority, few events could strike a more damaging blow than theout-of-control implication of a drunken-driving arrest. (A June 4 hearing hasbeen set for La Russa, who pleaded not guilty.) And it was only thebeginning.
"The incidentin Florida was and is an embarrassment," La Russa says. "But whathappened to Josh Hancock, no matter what the other contexts are, is atragedy."
At 12:41 a.m. onSunday, April 29, Hancock, a 29-year-old middle reliever with a reputation forenjoying the nightlife, crashed into the back of a parked tow truck onInterstate 64 in St. Louis. The police investigation and autopsy report foundthat he had been drunk, speeding, talking on a cellphone and not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision; he died almost instantly. A glass pipe and8.5 grams of marijuana were found in the car. In 2002 Cardinals starter DarrylKile died in a Chicago hotel room because of an undetected coronary arteryblockage; in his case, there was no one to blame. But Hancock's death unleasheda storm of recrimination and doubt that promises to linger.
Though theCardinals banned alcohol from the clubhouse within five days of the tragedy,the city's drinking habits, the team's long-standing relations with theAnheuser-Busch brewery and management's seeming unwillingness to address aplayer's self-destructive behavior were called into question. But no one cameunder more fire than La Russa. The Cardinals had not punished him for his DUIarrest in Florida. According to team officials, the extenuatingcircumstances--La Russa was exhausted that night, he was not known to be aheavy drinker, and he hadn't had a previous alcohol-related incident--persuadedthem to let him off easy. "He's gone through enough punishment," saysgeneral manager Walt Jocketty. "You could fine him or suspend him, but Idon't think that would be nearly as bad as what he's gone through."
La Russa didhimself no favors the day after Hancock's death, when the team was preparingfor a game in Milwaukee. Carrying his fungo bat, he threatened to startswinging at reporters who, he'd told his players, "are out there trying tofurther their own agendas." Even if his grief and his desire to shieldHancock's family are taken into account, it was a highly unprofessional moment."A mistake," La Russa says now. Seen in tandem with a media blowup justthree days earlier--La Russa was peeved with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for,of all things, a humorous rip of the archrival Cubs--the overreaction seemedthe latest sign of a man on the edge.
"I can'tprotect Tony on either one of those," Lamping says. "But one of thereasons Tony has been as successful is that he has always believed that ifsomebody takes a whack at you, you whack him back."
That's not aRenaissance man response, but then the week after Hancock's death wasn't anenlightening time. The Cardinals looked as if they were unraveling, perceivingthemselves under attack. Never mind that Hancock's death prompted importantquestions or that La Russa wasn't actually the object of whacking in eithercase. His mood only worsened when people began linking his drunken-drivingcharge and Hancock's drunken-driving fatality. "They'll nail meforever," La Russa says of the Post-Dispatch reporting corps, "andthat's fine."
On the Thursdaybefore his death Hancock showed up just minutes before a 12:10 p.m. startagainst the Cincinnati Reds, telling La Russa that he'd overslept. The managersays he chewed out Hancock in the few minutes left before game time--longenough to be convinced that Hancock was not hung over, though a reportpublished five days later indicated that he was--then met with the pitcher inhis office the next day and "really jabbed him." Did La Russa's DUIarrest undermine his authority with Hancock on the subject of drinking? Did thethe team's failure to sanction La Russa after his DUI lead Hancock to believethat he could drink without risk of serious punishment?
La Russa allowsthat he may have been "ineffective" in his chat with Hancock, but"you're getting the best that I have," he says. "The conversation Ihad with Josh was the toughest, the most honest that I can have. I can't dobetter than that. And I couldn't have done better than that last year before[my DUI] incident." La Russa fined Hancock for being late, and says he wasunaware that Hancock had misled him about why he'd been late. It turned outthat Hancock had been involved in a traffic accident at 5:30 a.m. thatThursday, in the suburb of Sauget, Ill.
Jocketty, theG.M., says that he learned of Hancock's first accident on the Saturday beforehis fatal crash, but because Hancock wasn't ticketed he didn't consider theaccident significant. "It didn't sound like it was a big deal,"Jocketty says, "but it turns out it was." Told of Jocketty'sinformation, La Russa says he might well have been harder on Hancock had heknown about the first accident. Whether a harsher punishment would have scaredHancock out of drinking and driving on that Saturday, of course, is impossibleto say.
The only thingcertain is that the Cardinals remain an organization in pain. The players stillfeel Hancock's presence--in the number 32 patch on their uniform sleeves, inthe locker emptied of everything but Hancock's jersey, a small straw cross anda white piece of paper on which is printed the poem To an Athlete Dying Young.Flores had been his pregame throwing partner for more than a year, alwaysapologizing because he had trouble catching the ball. "And every day I sawhis patience and heart and the fun he had with me just being out there,"Flores says. Slowly, he and his bullpen mates are moving past their grief;Flores has played catch with three pitchers since. "That's a reminder everyday," Flores says, "when I take that first throw."
La Russa needs noreminder beyond the nearest phone. After Cardinals security director Joe Walshcalled him at around four that awful morning, he and Jocketty and Lamping spokeabout the call that had to be placed. La Russa became the logical choice; he'dactually met Hancock's dad, Dean. So he sat a bit before the dawn broke,wondering, What do I say? Please let me get through this.... He tried out a fewphrases, groping for the right words, but came up empty. Finally he dialed thenumber of the home outside Tupelo, Miss., and listened to it ring.
Dean Hancockpicked up. And then La Russa, as he always has, managed it: how to wake a manand tell him his son is dead.
The bruises keepcoming. It's Sunday morning, May 6, and La Russa is leaning on the rail infront of his dugout. The night before, Carpenter learned that he needed surgeryto remove bone spurs from his right elbow and would be out three months;Hancock's replacement, Dennis Dove, gave up a grand slam; and St. Louis wentdown to its worst loss of the season, 13--0 to the Astros. Asked if, after allthese years, he's still managing as if dangling from a window ledge, La Russaholds up his hands again and curls them into claws, slightly less clenched."Now it's a little bit more like this," he says. "I think I'll getto the All-Star break this year."
DeWitt laughs atthis. To a man the St. Louis brass professes confidence in La Russa despite theDUI, the media spats and Hancock's death, and says his leadership has in no waybeen compromised. "I do believe he has the ability to rally this teamunlike anyone else," DeWitt says.
Still, thestarting pitching is a mess. Stalwarts like Rolen, shortstop David Eckstein,centerfielder Jim Edmonds have spent the spring looking older, slower. Atweek's end the Cards were 20--27, 6 1/2 games back. "La Russa has achallenge now that is really unique to his career," says longtime baseballanalyst Bill James, an adviser with the Boston Red Sox. "Since Chicago he'sbeen working with pretty good talent, but it's been a long time since he's hadto deal with a challenge like this. It's really an interesting place to try toget a handle on what Tony's skills are now."
But La Russa'sskills derive from his intensity, and whether he's lost something there is afavorite topic in St. Louis these days. Intimates find him quieter than usual.His contract expires at the end of the season, and when asked how long he wantsto manage, La Russa says, "I don't know. I don't think I want to do it muchlonger." He has taken to blaming himself lately for every failing--"Badmanaging," he'll repeat when asked what's wrong with the team--and it's notclear if he's being self-sacrificing or flip. Is La Russa snappish because he'sdefending his turf or because he's had it with the constant questions, theplayers' distracted and entitled attitudes, the idea of laboring through aseason with no shot at another World Series?
"Managing hassome great moments, but there's some savage s--- that you go through," hesays. "You win a great game, you feel great, and something will happen--aplayer may betray you--and it eats you. I believe your best and almost onlychance to survive is to personalize it. It's you. I sit in that office: Am Imanaging bad? Am I an ineffective leader? Go ahead and run with that if youwant to. I believe it: I'm horses---. I've got to do something better."
Suchself-recrimination is classic old school, and with it, suddenly, La Russa seemsstripped bare under the sun, revealed by time and crisis as exactly what he hasalways wanted to be. This isn't a season for genius. It's a time to grind. Theteam may well keep losing, but "I'm going to manage my ass off," hesays. "I can control how hard I go after it. I'm giving you one of thethings that saved my professional life over the years: You've got to take itpersonal, man."
It has taken himnearly 30 years to get here. Earl and Whitey have been out of the game fordecades; Kuenn died in 1988. La Russa is the old guard now. He recallssomething Sparky told him about not setting a retirement date, and "Ialways do what Sparky tells me," La Russa says. "When that fire is out,it's time to leave. Right now the fire is still burning. So I'm here." Butfor how long? La Russa has done what he set out to do, and it turns out to havelittle to do with winning. He's earned the standard. He's the baseball man,after all.
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In what could be his final season, the 62-year-old La Russa has beenhard-pressed to find the right moves to lift his slumping and injury-riddledclub.
Though he didn't make K.C's roster in 1964, the bonus-baby infielder played 132games in 10 years with three clubs.
Canseco was a thorn in La Russa's side in Oakland and afterward, when herevealed that he had used steroids.
La Russa won an NL Central title with McGwire in 2000 and remains a staunchsupporter of the slugger.
Estranged from his first family, La Russa enjoyed the 2006 title with (fromleft) Bianca, Elaine and Devon.
The St. Louis relievers are never far away from reminders of Hancock, whosuffered a fatal auto accident.
La Russa vowed to use his fungo bat on reporters for "insincerity" intheir coverage of Hancock's death.