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Thu September 27, 2012
Sports

'One Last Strike' The Tale Of A Storied Baseball Career

Originally published on Fri September 28, 2012 12:13 pm

One Last Strike is Tony La Russa's memoir of the 2011 major league baseball season and, in passing, a memoir of his very successful career as a big league manager. Last season, La Russa led the St. Louis Cardinals out of nowhere to win the National League wildcard slot, and then, improbably, advanced to the League Championship Series and the World Series. The Cards won the title in what was one of the great World Series of all time.

La Russa managed St. Louis for 16 seasons. Before that, he spent ten seasons managing the Oakland Athletics and seven seasons managing the Chicago White Sox. La Russa also had a less than illustrious career as an infielder. Last year's baseball season was his last.

La Russa talks to NPR's Robert Siegel about retirement, steroid use and being on the road.


Interview Highlights

On retiring from managing baseball

"Interestingly, especially to my friends, I do not miss it at all, in the sense of being in the dugout. What I do miss is being involved in the competition as a player and as a manager of fifty years, of waking up in the morning during the season and expecting to have an outcome of win or lose that night. I do miss that competition, but not the dugout."

On forecasting the success of major league baseball players

"I think, you know, the idea of evaluating a high school player especially, and then trying to look forward and ... figure his development, there are certain criteria that you look to give you an idea, but everybody that signs has a level of talent. Some are very talented, some are less talented, but the successful producers in major league baseball — and probably in sports — they have a competitive physical and mental toughness. And players that get into the competition and are not distracted by fame and fortune, and have the toughness to deal with all the ups and downs and the challenges, they are worth more than their weight in gold."

On how Major League Baseball should handle the records of players like Mark McGwire, who have admitted to using steroids

"Well, I think the simple answer ... [is to] treat [McGwire] like you would treat everybody else. I really have no real idea how it's going to be reconciled, whether it's in the record books. I just think as far as the players are concerned, treat them all the same ... If he's not [going to be admitted to the Hall of Fame] because he used, then don't put anybody in. There's a lot of guys out there, and there are only a few poster boys that are being singled out ... I don't think that's fair either. Punish all of them, or punish none of them, and ... put an asterisk next to that embarrassing time."

On how La Russa might have managed his team differently in order to prevent the use of performance-enhancing drugs

"There's no quick and easy answer, but ... there did originate the concept of workouts, legal and proper workouts to enhance your stamina and strength. I know that [in] our official program, there was no ... messing around, no illegalities. Now what happened away from it — so there were signs ... We could see, for example, if someone was getting stronger without working as hard, or got strong quickly. And you started to suspect that there were other things involved. As you raised the issue or you pushed it up the levels of the organization, there were obstacles, and I ... think probably MLB was having a tough time understanding what was going on. But you couldn't test — the union would argue for right of privacy and collective bargaining obstacles. So, you know, there's only so much at that point — you know, I hate making excuses, because I'm just ... offering you an explanation. But we did observe, and we did question."

On why the Anaheim Angels haven't thrived, despite their acquisition of terrific free agent pitchers and rookie Mike Trout

"You know, they had a pot of gold and a TV contract that allowed them to really go out and spend, and they already had a team. But the story in the West is the upstart Oakland A's, who are — I think their payroll is like 50 million, maybe 100 million less than the Angels and the Rangers — if you draft smartly and develop, the young guys, they play with enthusiasm. You don't have the ups and downs of, and distractions that some of the older guys have. They stay healthier. Also, when you introduce new teammates ... Look at the Dodgers, they made the trade, they look so much better on paper — they haven't really had the record to support it, because they're not quite a team. They haven't gelled. It's that thing we talk in the book a lot about, that chemistry that comes from teammates respecting and trusting and caring for each other. You just can't make it automatic and press a button."

On why Anaheim Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, who left the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of last season, had a slow start this year as a result of being away from his family

"You can't ... computerize that. I mean, that's human nature. His wife was pregnant with her fifth child, which she just delivered two or three weeks ago. He had a lot on his plate. He tried to do too much. And, in fact, when I talked to him, I reminded him that the year before, he got off to a slow start and then tried to force things, and Mark McGwire, our hitting coach, reminded him — just take what's there. And pretty soon the real Albert emerged, and it has emerged this season."

On La Russa's daughters, who send his wife a Father's Day card every year as a joke about La Russa always being on the road

"They're laughing ... but I'm not, you know. Because they have forgiven me for my excessive concentration and distractions, but I haven't forgiven myself. I should have stayed at home a little longer and come home sooner, and when I was home, I should have paid more attention to them. I was taught this leadership philosophy of no regrets. It pains me to have regrets, that I didn't pay more attention to the family than I did."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. "One Last Strike" is Tony LaRussa's memoir of the 2011 Major League Baseball season and in passing a memoir of his very successful career as a big league manager. Last season, LaRussa led the St. Louis Cardinals out of nowhere to win the National League wildcard slot and then improbably advance to the League Championship Series and the World Series where they won it all in what was one of the great World Series of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "2011 WORLD SERIES GAME 6")

JOE BUCK: (Bat hitting ball) In the air to left, well hit. Back is Craig. What a team. (Cheering) What a ride. The Cardinals are world champs in 2011.

SIEGEL: Tony LaRussa managed St. Louis for 16 seasons; before that were 10 seasons managing the Oakland A's; seven seasons managing the Chicago White Sox; and before that a less than illustrious career as an infielder. Last year's season was his last. He's now retired, and he's with us today. Welcome to the program.

TONY LARUSSA: Well, thank you, Robert, and I appreciate the compliment of less than illustrious. It was really lousy.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: How much do you miss managing this year?

LARUSSA: Interestingly, especially to my friends, I do not miss it at all in the sense of being in the dugout. What I do miss is being involved in the competition. As a player and as a manager of 50 years, it would wake you up in the morning during the season and expecting to have an outcome, win or lose that night. I do miss that competition but not the dugout.

SIEGEL: You know, in reading your story about your career and the players you've managed, I was struck very often by this. You were...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...as you say, less than illustrious is you'll be tougher on yourself, your Major League playing record. Your partner, the great pitching coach, Dave Duncan was a Major League catcher, a journeyman Major League catcher. Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players in the game whom you managed, was not among the first 400 players drafted in his year. Why is it so difficult to forecast success in Major League Baseball at so many different levels?

LARUSSA: I think, you know, the idea of evaluating a high school player especially and then trying to look forward and figure his development, there are certain criteria that you look to give you an idea, but everybody had signs, has a level of talent. Some are very talented, and some are much less talented. But the successful producers in Major League Baseball, probably in sports, they have a competitive physical and mental toughness. And players that get into the competition are not distracted by fame and fortune, and have the toughness to deal with all the ups and downs, and the challenges. They are worth more than their weight in gold.

SIEGEL: Steroids, you managed before, during and we think after the steroid era in Major League Baseball. You managed Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the A's and later McGwire with the Cardinals as well. They both later admitted using steroids, and McGwire's admission was a pretty heartbreaking apology. What should baseball's attitude be toward him and toward his records?

LARUSSA: Well, I think the simple answer, Robert, is if it's to him, treat him like you would treat everybody else. I really have no real idea how it's going to be reconciled whether it's in the record books. I just think as far as the players are concerned, treat them all the same.

SIEGEL: Well, should McGwire be admitted to the Hall of Fame, for example?

LARUSSA: Well, if he's not because he used, then don't put anybody in. There's a lot of guys out there and there are only a few poster boys that are being singled out. I don't think that's fair. Either punish all of them or punish none of them and put an asterisk next to that embarrassing time.

SIEGEL: You write a lot about your approach to managing, which you call personalizing, and also about the senior players, the leaders on the team. You actually engaged in leadership. Formerly, you make them co-signers to the team's aims. I'm curious. In retrospect, do you think that if you'd personalized more, you might have found out more about what was going on with performance-enhancing drugs, or might co-signers in those days have done some enforcement, or would that have been pointless?

LARUSSA: Terrific question. It's, you know, as for any really good question, it's not - there's no quick and easy answer, but one of them, for example, there did originate the concept of workouts, legal and proper workouts to enhance your stamina and strength. I know there are official programs. There was no messing around, no illegalities. Now, what happened away from it, so there were signs, by the way, though, Robert. We could see, for example, if someone was getting stronger without working as hard or got strong quickly and you started to suspect that there are other things involved as you raise the issue or you push it up the levels of the organization, there were obstacles.

And I think probably MLB was having a tough time understanding what was going on, but you couldn't test. The union would argue for right of privacy and collective bargaining obstacles. So, you know, there's only so much at that point. You know, I hate making excuses because I'm just offering you an explanation...

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah.

LARUSSA: ...but we did observe, and we did question.

SIEGEL: At the end of last season, the great Saint Louis Cardinal first baseman Albert Pujols, free agent, moves and joins the Anaheim Angels. They've been actively acquiring terrific free agent pitchers. They come up with the greatest rookie anyone has seen in years, Mike Trout. You'd think that all of that would put the Angels at the top of their division and a lock for postseason, doesn't happen. What's going on?

(LAUGHTER)

LARUSSA: You know, they had a pot of gold in a TV contract that allowed them to really go out and spend, and they already had a team. But the story in the West is the upstart Oakland A's...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

LARUSSA: ...who I think their payroll is like 50 million, maybe 100 million less than the Angels and the Rangers. If you draft smartly and develop, the young guys, they play with enthusiasm. You don't have the ups and downs of - distractions that some of the older guys have. They stay healthier. Also when you introduce new teammates - happened to the - look at the Dodgers. They made the trade. They look so much better on paper. They haven't really had the record to support it because they're not quite a team. They haven't gelled. It's a thing we talk in the book a lot about. It's chemistry that comes from teammates respecting and trusting and caring for each other. You just can't make it automatic and press a button.

SIEGEL: You had an explanation for Pujols' terrible start this year that he was unhappy. He was away from his family.

LARUSSA: You can't computerize that. I mean, that's human nature. His wife was pregnant with her fifth child, which she just delivered here two, three weeks ago. He had a lot on his plate. He tried to do to too much. And in fact, when I talked to him, I reminded him that the year before he got off to a slow start and then tried to force things, and Mark McGwire, our hitting coach, reminded him just take what's there, and pretty soon, the real Albert emerged, and it has emerged this season.

SIEGEL: By the way, I'll just leave people with the thought speaking of unhappiness of being on the road, away from your family. You make a wonderful admission in the book that your daughters, after your lifetime being on the road for eight months out of the year, your daughters send your wife a Father's Day card every year, I gather.

(LAUGHTER)

LARUSSA: Yeah. You know, it's - they're laughing and - but I'm not, you know, because they have forgiven me for my excessive concentration and distractions, but I haven't forgiven myself. I should have stayed at home a little longer and come home sooner. And when I was home, I should have paid more attention to them, and, you know, I was taught this leadership philosophy of no regrets. It pains me to have regrets that I didn't pay more attention to the family when I did.

SIEGEL: Tony LaRussa, thanks for talking with us today.

LARUSSA: Well, Robert, it's my pleasure, and this is a great show and station, and I appreciate the chance to be a part of it.

SIEGEL: Tony LaRussa's book is called "One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season." He joined us from member station KWMU in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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