Whenever I’ve been critical of Tony La Russa over the years, I’ve always lost the ensuing arguments with his supporters. And I always will.
“He’s won three World Series trophies,” they will say, “and six pennants. He’s been Manager of the Year four times. He managed for 33 years, he’s intelligent, he’s made a significant impact on game strategy and he loves puppies. He’s a Hall of Fame manager.”
To which I can only respond, yes. That’s all true. I’d vote for him myself in a heartbeat.
But he is so annoying.
The good and the bad are both reaffirmed in La Russa’s new book “One Last Strike,” a sort of diary of the 2011 season that does a good job of capturing La Russa’s voice -- by which I mean it alternates corporate-retreat platitudes about success and intensity and “personalizing” with petty grudges against media and opposing players, along with incessant name-dropping (“I detoured to Pebble Beach to meet with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick … I’ll never be able to thank him for the long hours he spent with me.” -- page 24; “I am reminded of something John Madden taught me.” -- page 25).
In between, he gives readers an intensely detailed look at the strategy that went into the genuinely amazing story of the 2011 Cardinals, the most unlikely champions since, well, the 2006 Cardinals. St. Louis’ ride through the playoffs last fall was thrilling, even for those with no particular fondness for the team. The book’s strongest moments come when La Russa, with credited co-writer Rick Hummel, captures the excitement, elation and tense planning the team experienced as it overcame a 10-game deficit in late August, then rode a series of dramatic comebacks all the way to a World Series victory.
As with much of La Russa’s career, the trick is to stop rolling your eyes long enough to appreciate it.
“One thing to understand,” he writes about learning of a lack of cohesiveness in the clubhouse in 2010, “none of this is about pointing fingers. I never do that.” In fact, he does it not 20 pages later, when he takes a series of swipes at Colby Rasmus. It’s possible that La Russa is right about Rasmus, who made him look wise when he hit .173/.201/.316 after being traded to Toronto. But he would still be annoyingly right.
La Russa makes reference to his own “lawyerly, irrefutable logic” and then, later, says, “I don’t think anybody knows this, but I graduated with honors from law school.” WE KNOW, TONY. (I wondered if La Russa was kidding there, since law school is such an oft-told part of his story. But this is a guy whose most hilarious clubhouse anecdotes have punch lines like, “that will teach you to go to the head and leave your phone behind so someone could turn your phone on.” So I think probably he is not.)
In addition to Rasmus, La Russa gets digs in at Nyjer Morgan, reporters (he cites “media nonsense” as a significant factor in his decision to retire), the Brewers and their lighting, and, perhaps most unappealingly, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who was unhappy with his reduced role under La Russa in 1996. “Finally, Ozzie’s dissatisfaction grew to the point that we needed to do something,” La Russa writes. “Finally, everyone agreed the time seemed right and Ozzie announced his retirement. As you know, I’d later go out of my way to make sure that my retirement wasn’t a distraction.”
It’s that last needling sentence that induces groans, that need to get his digs in now, 16 years later and fresh off a triumphant last season. But retaliation is apparently important to La Russa -- now safe from Bud Selig’s fines, he admits to regularly ordering his pitchers to hit opposing players when he felt it was called for, as revenge for one of his Cardinals getting plunked.
La Russa becomes warmer when talking about the coaches and players he loves most, especially pitching coach/genius Dave Duncan, catcher Yadier Molina (“several pitchers have told me they shake Yadi off only as a way to mess with the hitter’s mind,” La Russa reports, awesomely) and ace Chris Carpenter. As a bonus, one of the book’s most amusingly random passages came during the description of Duncan.
“As much as I think of Dunc as a guy who could be a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret or whatever, he’s also a cat lover. The thing to remember is that, even though many men believe that being a cat lover means you’re not macho enough, the opposite in fact is true: understanding and admitting our affection for cats is a high form of macho-ness. In any case, Dunc doesn’t care, he just appreciates cats’ qualities and is into them.”
Predictably, though, La Russa is at his best when talking strategy, and he gets into the nitty-gritty here. How he painstakingly arranged and rearranged his pitching rotation, the thought process behind his bullpen moves (though what actually happened in the Great Lance Lynn Fiasco of 2011 remains frustratingly vague), who hit where in the lineup and why, how he talked to his team about his choices.
There are a number of statements here that could almost have been designed to drive the sabermetrically inclined up a wall -- when La Russa says early on that he’d rather have a top-notch shut-down reliever than an ace starter, for instance, or the sentence, “Some call it ‘small ball,’ but the runs we manufactured were big.”
But as much as some may take issue with his theories, and however valid their criticisms, it’s hard to argue with those three World Series championships and 2,728 wins -- third on the all-time list. No matter how annoying he may be, the guy is obviously doing something right.
Just ask him.