November 2, 2006 • Baseball

A Beautiful Mind: A conversation with Tony La Russa

Photo: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a master strategist. In 2006, Coach & Athletic Director spoke with the three-time World Series champion about the game and keys to coaching his players.

COACH: We know that you were born and bred in Tampa, Florida, graduating from Jefferson High School. What was your childhood like? What sports did you play?

LA RUSSA: I was born in a section of Tampa called Ybor City. There were a lot of Italian and Spanish communities. It’s considered Florida’s Latin District. Not far from where we lived, Hall of Famer Al Lopez made his home. Then my family moved to West Tampa, and that’s where I was raised. That’s also where I became friends with Lou Piniella. From almost early on, it was all baseball until I got to junior high. Then I started playing basketball and football.

COACH: When did you start getting serious about baseball? Did you always have aspirations of being a big leaguer?

LA RUSSA: When I was about 6 or 7 years old, some of the coaches would play me with older kids. I guess I really thought about it when I was playing Colt League, around 13-14 years old. We went to the Colt League World Series when I a sophomore in high school and some scouts told me they had been watching me.

COACH: You were a former infielder who signed his first pro contract in 1962 with the Kansas City Athletics on the night you graduated from high school. One year later you made your major league debut with the A’s. What kind of player were you?

LA RUSSA: I had a good high school senior season, and in those days they didn’t have a draft. There were 24 teams at the time, and I received contracts from almost 20 of them. I literally signed following the commencement exercises. I was a shortstop who was a pretty good hitter and had a pretty good arm. And a year later, because of the bonus rule, I spent the season with Kansas City. I hit .250 for the A’s and thought I was going to be a prospect but for a variety of reasons I became a suspect.

COACH: You played during an era that featured some of the most storied managers the game has ever seen: Leo Durocher, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson, and Walter Alston, just to name a few. From whom did you draw your inspiration and managerial style?

LA RUSSA: I learned from everybody I was ever associated with during my 16-year career. I remember playing for John McNamara with the Oakland A’s, who later managed the Cincinnati Reds and took the Boston Red Sox to the 1986 World Series. But I was really impressed with Dick Williams, who came to the A’s in 1971. Just the way he stressed the fundamentals. I felt Dick’s approach was really straightforward — play the game right, and don’t make mistakes.

I was a player-coach for two years for a man named Loren Babe in Triple A. In 1975 I was with the Denver Bears and in 1976 the franchise moved to Des Moines (Iowa Oaks). He really taught me what managers go through and I realized there was a lot more to the job than I had originally thought. Then I thought my career was done as a player and I was going to law school to become an attorney. By the time I graduated from law school, I was done playing as a Triple-A player-coach. So I decided to try managing. My wife and I didn’t have children at the time. So in 1978 the Chicago White Sox offered me a job as manager of their Double A affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Photo: SD Dirk, Wikimedia Commons

COACH: You began your professional managing career in 1978 with Knoxville of the Class AA Southern League before taking your first major league managing job on August 2, 1979, with the Chicago White Sox. How did your experience in the minors prepare you for the majors? What did you learn about yourself that bolstered your confidence and let you know you belonged in a big league dugout?

LA RUSSA: What I learned right off the bat was that in 1978 we had a great club and if you want to win, you better get good players. Good players make good managers. One year later I got the big league job with the White Sox. I was very unprepared but I tried to learn and I was given the opportunity, so I jumped right in.

The one thing I had going for me was that I was supported by the ownership and the general manager — Bill Veeck and Jerry Reinsdorf — and later on it was Roland Hemond. But that’s when I really ran into these great managers. I started asking questions and they were just so helpful. They were very outgoing with everything they knew. Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin, and Earl Weaver were all wonderful to me. Gene Mauch and Chuck Tanner were also great. You asked them and they would give you everything they had. At the time it all sounded good but over the years I realized just how invaluable their lessons and advice had been.

COACH: You are a 1978 graduate of Florida State University’s School of Law and passed the bar exam in December 1979, making you one of only five lawyer/managers in baseball history, the other four being: Monte Ward (New York Giants, Brooklyn and Providence, late 1800s), Hughie Jennings (Detroit, 1907-20, New York Giants, 1924), Miller Huggins (St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees, 1913-29) and Branch Rickey (St. Louis Browns, 1913-15, St. Louis Cardinals, 1919-25). How has your law degree helped not only your managerial skills, but your people skills as well?

LA RUSSA: I don’t know if it’s helped with my people skills. I think your personality is what it is. Where the law degree does help is learning the value of preparation and attention to detail. But I would get into these games and you would see these masters like Sparky [Anderson] and Billy [Martin] and Chuck [Tanner]. They didn’t go to law school. So it’s mostly the education you get in baseball.

COACH: Over the years, you have struck up many coaching/managing relationships nationwide, but one in particular strikes a chord with us. You have a close kinship with Bob Ladouceur, the highly successful football coach at De La Salle High in Concord, California, whom you met from your days with the A’s. What have you gleaned from him that has helped you on the diamond?

LA RUSSA: When we have our conversations, it’s mostly Bob talking and me listening. We’re all so fascinated by the success of De La Salle, and I have had the up close and personal opportunity to ask him some questions. A lot of people around the country only see it and are wondering how they do it.

From talking with Bob I have learned so much about his relationships with the players and the importance of the process. The winning is a result of doing a lot of things right. He’s really been great. I’ve tried to adjust some of our philosophies based on things or tips Bob has suggested.

COACH: Who are some of the influential people in and outside baseball who have helped shape who you are? We know you were very close with the late Bill Veeck, who gave you your first shot at managing in the majors.

LA RUSSA: Obviously some of the managers I have mentioned. What I learned from Bill is the magic of the game and the importance of the fans. That’s front and center. The players are playing for the fans. He really stressed the importance of the ability to entertain and compete and really be aware as far as your responsibility to fans. I also had a wonderful relationship with the ownership group in Oakland — the Walter Haas family. They were very sound human beings and had a great interest in the community. They really wanted the organization to give back.

COACH: What are the biggest challenges facing a manager in today’s game?

LA RUSSA: I would say the biggest challenge is having players fight through the distractions and concentrate on true professionalism, which is best effort to learn what the craft is about and best effort against the competition. Players today get too distracted by the chance to make money, so they chase statistics and attention. The media is driven by, in many cases, the controversy. Which is what sells. Not the basics. So players really need to fight through all of that and really stress being as good a professional as they can be and the rest of the stuff falls in place.

COACH: What are your greatest attributes as a manager? We know you are not afraid to take chances, what with your penchant for employing strategies like the hit-and-run, double steal, and the suicide squeeze bunt.

LA RUSSA: I don’t really think coaches and managers have attributes. I think what you do is, you have to be in good situations and then you try to not take them for granted and create — along with your coaches and other members of your organization — the healthiest, most positive environment for players to grow and produce. I’m just thankful I have been blessed to have been associated with such great organizations.

COACH: You have had tremendous success in both the American and National Leagues, having been honored four times as Manager of the Year – in 1983 with the White Sox, 1988 and 1992 with the Oakland A’s, and 2002 with the Cardinals. Aside from the designated hitter, explain the subtle differences in managing in both leagues.

LA RUSSA: The designated hitter is obviously the biggest one. The fact that the pitcher is in there, as opposed to the DH, it does a lot to impact at least a third of the innings. And when you are making decisions, you’re always conscious of where the pitcher is and when he is likely to come up. You use your bench differently. You use your bullpen differently.

You have the double-switch, which is an important play in the National League. I think it’s a healthy way to play because the entire game is showcased in the NL and there are pieces of it that never appear in the American League. Also, you’re forced to involve your overall roster. In the AL, you kind of get lost there for a while.

COACH: Currently, you are third on the all-time managerial wins list, and just the seventh major league manager to win 2,000 career games. You are also the career leader in wins among active managers and rank second all-time among Cardinals skippers. What has been the secret to your success and longevity in a sport where firing the manager is not even an afterthought?

LA RUSSA: I bet there have been a number of managers in the game over the years that go about the job exactly the way I do. The difference is they haven’t had this kind of longevity because you’re so dependent on the organization that you’re part of. I have never been in anything but an ideal situation. I’m talking about the type of ownership, front office, scouting, and development. My friends in managing have only had that once in a while. And the difference and results have been dramatic. So I’ve never taken it personal.

What you learn is that it’s part of a big team and each part of the team contributes something, to put the players in a position to produce. The whole thing is about competition – our team against their team – and you’re trying to maximize your chances to win. That’s what we all try to do as an organization. Instead of taking away from each other, and in effect different parts, we have a scenario where everybody really does well. That doesn’t happen every place.

COACH: What do you look for when assembling a coaching staff, particularly your penchant for reliable coaches, i.e., Dave Duncan and Dave McKay, who both served with you in Oakland, and in Duncan’s case also with the Chicago White Sox?

LA RUSSA: What I am most pleased about is that most of the guys on the staffs I’ve been on became friends after we worked together. They were not friends first, and that’s how they got the job. We look at certain expertise, because there is a lot of teaching nowadays in the big leagues. Players get here in a hurry. So you have to be able to teach them.

Secondly, there needs to be a personality that turns players on. You don’t want to turn them off. You can be quiet; you can be funny. There just has to be something there. A lot of it has to do with sincerity. And finally, we insist that the coaches live and die with the results. They just can’t come in with their expertise and say, “I coach and whatever happens, happens.” We want them excited if we win and suffer if we lose. That’s the kind of criteria we want.

COACH: When is the right time to hold a team meeting, and what kind of approach do you take?

LA RUSSA: You’re limited to just a very few during the course of the season. They have to be symbolic, like at the beginning of the season or the beginning of the second half or the beginning of the postseason. And you’re allowed another one or two when you sense that something important has to be said that will be helpful. But there’s an old adage that if you need too many meetings then your ballclub is in trouble, not paying attention, or whatever you’re saying, you’re not getting through to them. If you’re not doing your job, then the players will just tune you out.

COACH: How do you handle the enormous egos of today’s ballplayers? How do you know when to coddle someone in a slump and light a fire under someone who is not giving his best effort?

LA RUSSA: We encourage egos because we encourage players to take their jobs very personal. If you’re a pitcher, you have competition against a hitter. If you’re a hitter, you have competition against a pitcher. So ego is very important. Ego lets you prove to yourself that you’re good enough to play in the big leagues, to be a part of our club. But, this is a team competition. We try to preach the message that it’s about our team and each one of us has a contribution to make.

COACH: You have said that every successful manager is a stickler for detail. Explain your attention to detail and why it’s proven so effective.

LA RUSSA: Every successful manager has players. That’s the no. 1 message. Baseball is a player’s game. It’s a player’s competition. Coaches and managers don’t decide baseball. Players decide it. But what you do as a coach or coaching staff is you have a responsibility and opportunity to help put players in their best position to compete. Part of that is sometimes you might contribute something big or it might be something small and it just improves the team or the player enough to make a difference. If you’re in a close competition and the margin of winning and losing is very fine, something small can beat you just as much as something big.

COACH: A lot has been made of the old school style of managing vs. the new style featured in the book Moneyball. What is your take on this?

LA RUSSA: I think Moneyball is kind of an exaggerated philosophy that is meant to generate comment and controversy. If you think about it seriously, there is no way that you can apply Moneyball-type analysis to people that are involved in a competition against other people.

The basis of Moneyball is very important, very useful statistics or information that can help you put players in the best position to succeed. But to think that those answers are generated by the machines or by some formulas is not sensible, because the individuals that are competing literally change from day to day, series to series, and year to year. And they sometimes change within the game itself. And not just the players change, the conditions of the competition change. You play in a different ballpark, you play in different climatic conditions. So you have to adjust your strategies based on what the people and the game are doing and you take that useful information that you are given and you put it in its place. But you can’t over exaggerate. Moneyball diminishes the human quotient and exaggerates the importance of numbers.

COACH: What traits as a player have served you well as a manager?

LA RUSSA: The love of the game and the desire to learn it. I think that is critical.

COACH: What kind of relationship would Tony LaRussa the player have had with Tony La Russa the manager?

LA RUSSA: Tony the manager would have really liked and respected Tony the player, except he would have never played him because he was trying to win.

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