THE Eclectic Athletic : Tony La Russa Isn’t Your Average Baseball Man, Which May Explain Why Oakland Manager Has Won Three Pennants in a Row
Tony La Russa, the onetime journeyman ballplayer who has led the Oakland Athletics to the past three American League pennants, is believed to be the only manager in baseball who is at once a lawyer, vegetarian, balletomane, American Indian patron and animal shelter executive.
At 46, La Russa, who lives in Contra Costa County near Oakland, has become president of the Contra Costa Animal Rescue Foundation.
“That’s the CC ARF!” he said the other day. “My wife is the vice president.”
Even so, he is much better known as a baseball man. Often called the best manager in the game, La Russa is a formidably consistent winner. Since 1906-08--when the Chicago Cubs won 322 games with Frank Chance--only 12 managers have been on the winning end of as many as 306 games in three consecutive seasons, La Russa among them.
Bright and companionable, he is on television a lot, a familiar figure with penetrating dark eyes and long black hair descending from a tight-fitting baseball cap. Though of Spanish and Italian descent, La Russa, stalking around the dugout, could be an Indian chief.
He and Charlie O. Finley, among others, have made Oakland the successor to New York as the most successful city in the American League since the heyday of the Yankees long ago.
During Finley’s stewardship, the A’s won three World Series, in 1972, ’73 and ’74. This year they’re favored to become the only ballclub except the storied Yankees to have won four consecutive pennants.
What has Oakland got?
“A great climate, to begin with,” said La Russa, who has managed the A’s since July 7, 1986, three weeks after he was fired by the Chicago White Sox. “If there’s a link between Finley’s teams and ours, it’s our weather--the best in the world for baseball. You come home from a road trip to the humid East, the Oakland weather invigorates you.”
He said that’s a significant edge that the A’s have had all these years.
Question: In what other ways are you an inheritor of the Charlie Finley traditions?
La Russa: Well, for one thing, Finley signed me to my first contract as a player, when I was 17 years old, and just out of high school. As he said, it was his only mistake. I’ve always thought there were two similarities between the (present and early-'70s A’s). We are as fundamentally sound as Finley’s clubs ever were, and there’s the same sense of team.
Q: How do you define sense of team?
A: Players getting support from other players. There’s a clubhouse feeling on this club that there’s somebody you can go to for help. It’s a six-month season. No player can go it alone. We all need help.
Q: In this era, how do you discover and bring in cooperative, team players?
A: We’ve found that most guys are that way if you tap into it. I’ve only known eight or 10 totally selfish athletes. Confidence is related to how you feel about yourself--and helping others helps you feel good, which helps confidence, which helps performance.
Q: One difference between today and the ‘70s in Oakland is that attendance is so much better now. The Raiders used to get bigger crowds for exhibition football than Finley got during the pennant run in September. What’s changed?
A: The people in charge of our team--the Haas family and (General Manager) Sandy Alderson--have made going to ballgames fun. The owners (Walter A. and Walter J. Haas) take pains to make the crowd comfortable. That’s No. 1 in building attendance today. Secondly, win or lose, our team is always trying hard. It’s a rare, rare day when somebody doesn’t put out. That’s because we feel talent isn’t enough to win ballgames. We think talent is only about half of it.
Q: What’s the other half?
A: Attitude. The various intangibles--competitiveness, attitude toward the job, work ethic, effort, aggressiveness, sense of team.
Q: But a really talented club is hard to beat.
A: A club with the right attitude is also hard to beat. There are great players on a lot of ballclubs. Take the 1987 A’s. Dave Stewart was a 20-game winner that year. Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs. Jose Canseco had one of his 30/100 seasons. As a team, though, we were a .500team.
Q: Still, that was Oakland’s best finish in six years. What turned the A’s around in your first year or two there?
A: We did it the way it’s usually done in baseball--with supportive ownership and an outstanding general manager. The Haases aren’t satisfied to have a merely respectable team.
Q: What did they and Alderson see in you personally?
A: A born competitor, I’d say. A competitor who learned (managing) by competing against the giants of the profession. When I broke in, some of the best of all time were in the (other) dugouts--Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch. No one ever came into managing at a better time.
THE MAN WHO SPENT 12 YEARS IN COLLEGE
Q: Throughout your career, have you always had managing in mind?
A: No, for years I thought I’d rather be a lawyer. When I was growing up, of course, I played ball all the time.
A: In (hometown) Tampa. I was blessed with supportive parents who encouraged me to play games. They never asked me to work. My father drove an ice truck for years, and then a milk truck. He got up at 2:30 each morning to begin his route, but never missed one of my games, even night games. He’d get home about 11 (p.m.) from a high school game, and get up at 2:30 to go to work.
Q: Is he an A’s fan?
A: Yes, my parents and my sister (see) a lot of Oakland games now (via satellite).
Q: Is your mother that interested in baseball?
A: She’s come to like baseball, although she’s always put school first. We spoke Spanish at home, so as a kid I had to learn English to go to school. In Oakland during the season, I do two pregame shows--one in English, one in Spanish--and my mother loves it. The only thing she’s ever asked of me was to stay in school--to spend my off-seasons in college.
Q: That’s the hard way to get a college degree.
A: After making the commitment to my mother, I stayed with it. Anyhow, I love reading. I look at books and see friends.
Q: How many years did you spend in college?
A: I went back to school in 12 of my 16 off-seasons as a player. It took seven years to get a (B.A.) degree at the University of South Florida, and another five years for the (law) degree from Florida State. My lifetime batting average (after a shoulder injury early on) was .199--so it wasn’t that hard to keep going to school. My way might have been the best way to do law school.
A: It gets to be a grind if you don’t take some time off. I was in law school with some kids who finished in 2 1/2 years by going to class winter and summer. That leads to burnout. My baseball career forced me to stretch it out, and I came back to Florida State fresh every year. After 24 years in school, all told, I ended up graduating with honors.
Q: That suggests you have a keen grasp of the law.
A: Or a keen intellect. But the fact is that neither is true. What happened was that my grades were so poor the first year that I was embarrassed into doing better. Some of my buddies and I made it into a game, trying to win grades instead of ballgames. I’m a dedicated competitor, and it was the competition that drove me. It didn’t have all that much to do with the law.
Q: Did you bother to take the Florida bar exam?
A: Yes, and passed the first time--but that also took years. After graduating from law school in March of 1978, I had to wait for the (state boards)--and that was a perfect time to try managing. I fully intended to be a lawyer, but in the meantime I had to do something else, and accepted the first (offer).
Q: That was where?
A: I managed the double-A Knoxville club that spring and summer, and then a Dominican club that winter, and came back in February to take the first two parts of the (three-part) bar exam. Eight months later, I sat for the third part during my first season as manager of the White Sox. That was in October of 1979--after I’d started the year (managing) the triple-A Iowa team.
Q: What if you’d gotten the White Sox into the World Series?
A: When (owner) Bill Veeck (promoted) me from Iowa (on Aug. 2, 1979), we agreed on one condition--that I’d take the bar exam.
Q: Since then, your teams have been in three World Series, losing two of them. Has it occurred to you that the National League might be the stronger league?
A: No, I think the American League is stronger (although) in the last three Series, the other side played well all three times. Twice, we could have played better. We recognize that--we’ll do everything in our power to correct it. But we’re proud to have won three American League championships.
TIME OUT FOR BALLET AND AMERICAN INDIANS
Q: Who got you going in ballet?
A: My wife, Elaine. She danced some before we were married. Our daughters (Bianca, 11, and Devon, 8) are also enthusiastic about ballet. Elaine takes them to six or seven dance classes a week, and they want more. The rec room we built above the garage last year is more like a rehearsal room--with a ballet bar, mirrors and all the rest. The ’89 World Series paid for it.
Q: What else is different about your house?
A: The house is just a spread-out California house, four bedrooms, on a couple of acres (in Danville) but there are walls of books in most rooms. And a big backyard. My wife raises all our food back there--we’re organic vegetarians--and (the children) help her work the big garden. It’s no secret that I’m useless. All I can do is pick tomatoes.
Q: Why do you have so many books?
A: We’re home-schoolers. My wife has taught the children most of the time since they’ve been of school age, although we’ve had some tutors. Where possible, instead of textbooks, we prefer library books--history, geography, novels and so on. That requires a good, big library. This year, for a change, Bianca and Devon were in a (private) school in Lafayette (Calif.). When we came to Arizona for spring training, they gave us a lesson plan to take along. A tutor comes twice a week.
Q: What’s the advantage of home-schooling?
A: Travel is the (avocation) I like best--I never get enough of it--and where possible, I want the whole family with me. That means we have to take their school along with us.
Q: Ballclubs travel half the year. Isn’t that enough?
Q: I’m the kind of traveler who comes home from the last game and says, “Is everybody ready? Let’s go.” In baseball, you basically work seven days and nights a week for eight months, then, technically, you take four months off. I don’t get four months anymore, but I’d rather spend it on the road than any other way.
Q: Where did you get your interest in American Indians?
A: I’ve been a big fan of theirs for 20 years--since first looking into excessive abuses of the environment. You learn that Native Americans have always been respectful of the outdoors. They make it a point to make a light impact on the environment. They kill only to eat. Theirs is a beautiful culture. Last year we had a Native American Day at the (Oakland) ballpark, and this year’s will be even bigger.
Q: What are you planning?
A: We’ll have 1,000 Native Americans in full regalia on the field before the game--it’s on May 4--and an official powwow afterward. Our daughters will both be “coming out,” as the Native Americans say. They’ll wear traditional (Indian) costumes when they’re formally welcomed into the dance circle of the powwow.
LA RUSSA ON HOW TO MANAGE IN THE MAJORS
Q: At 32 you were still a minor league infielder for most of the season, and at 34 you were managing the White Sox. How did you move so fast?
A: First, I’m lucky to have had so much talent around me--in the field most of the time, as well as the front office. Particularly Oakland’s front office and player development (department). Second, the most important thing in managing is managerial experience, and I had to find a way to make up the experience gap.
Q: What options did you have?
A: Only one, really. I could see that I had to ask a lot of questions. My starting point, the first year I (managed), was that I didn’t know anything about baseball. A great many people have at least some of the answers. Sparky Anderson has all the answers. Gene Mauch has all the answers. My problem at first was that I didn’t even know what to ask. My attitude was, “Don’t be too proud to ask. Just fire away, and if someone makes sense, remember it.”
Q: What idea made the most sense to you?
A: The value of pregame preparation. Making the effort to give your players the best possible chance to excel, to win. We prepare as hard as we can for every individual game as it comes up each season. Very often, that isn’t enough, disappointingly. In a (Detroit game), Sparky Anderson is making decisions based on 20 years of experience, and there’s never been a better manager, anyway. How do you close the experience gap on Anderson? But we try.
Q: Many clubs don’t believe in a lot of pregame preparation. They say, “Let the players play.” Their theory is, if you’re good enough, you win. Of all sports, isn’t that true of baseball?
A: It’s one way to play baseball--it’s the other way--and I know what they mean when they say that over-preparation can interfere with playing well. But we’ll chance that. We think you’ve got to prepare--intensively, and extensively.
Q: And in the last three American League races, your way has been more successful. How does it feel to be the proprietor of a widely envied formula?
A: I’d like to make a comment on that. On our team, we haven’t invented anything. The basics in our formula, if that’s what it is, have been around for years. Everything we do has been done at one time or another by some other manager. The way we defense the run (stolen bases), for instance, is Gene Mauch’s. We aren’t the product of our (innovations). Mostly, I’m a product of the answers to the questions I’ve asked.
Q: Suppose you’re playing the Angels tonight, or the Yankees. How are you planning to win?
A: We aren’t the only team that does it, but here’s what we do each day. We divide the 24 hours into two parts--pregame and game time. We think of them as different. If the game ends at 10:15--and if I talk to the team and the press untill 11--the pregame starts at 11:01. The things you do, the plans you make before you go to bed, can be as important as anything you do at the park the next day.
Q: At game time, what do you do?
A: The art and science both go out the window when the game starts. For the manager, a game is mostly reacting to situations, to the way things are changing. It’s mostly making decisions on what I feel--on what I’ve learned. It isn’t top-of-your-head hunch playing. It’s making quality decisions based on knowledge and experience. And the more experience you’ve had, the more legitimate information you’ve stored up, the better the chance to make a quality decision.
Q: You have been described as a risk-taker.
A: There’s a time to take chances. There’s a time to run--no matter who’s (at bat)--and there’s a time (not to). We try to develop a style that is both sound and aggressive.
Q: It has been said that the A’s have lucked into some players who play better baseball in Oakland than they ever played anywhere else.
A: There are two answers to that. Sure, it’s part luck. But second, we only demand what’s reasonable of a player. If he has been inhibited by unnaturally high expectations (elsewhere), that doesn’t happen here.
Q: Why did you choose baseball over the law?
A: Lawyers don’t have a postseason. They do have the thrill of competing--which is most of what I like about baseball. I’d have fun on an expansion club. But competing with a chance to win championships is very special. It’s an indescribably special way to end the year.