One Hundred and Ten Percent
Winning pennants. Saving animals. Tony La Russa never stops striving for his next victory.
Walking into Lafayette’s Duck Club at 8 a.m. with his cell phone to his ear, Tony La Russa is already working. Shaking hands, he nods at the phone, shrugs, and whispers, "Cal Ripken"—an informal apology for starting an interview a little late. Ripken, of course, is the man who played in the most consecutive baseball games ever. The interview can wait.
A few minutes later, his tiny silver phone is ringing again. The caller ID shows the names of other baseball friends, a radio show wanting Tony to chat on-air, and then Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. "Gotta take this one," La Russa says.
The man has a lot going on. He not only begins his 27th season as a Major League manager this month, but a book about his 44 years in professional baseball, Three Nights in August, is hitting stores.
He’s so busy, in fact, that he didn’t have time to celebrate his 60th birthday last October. He needed to concentrate on his job: managing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. (Alas, his Redbirds were steamrolled by the curse-shattering Boston Red Sox).
Then, the week of his belated birthday celebration in February, the party got sidelined again. La Russa had to hop on a flight to New York to give 60 Minutes his candid reactions to his former player Jose Canseco’s sensational steroid-tell-all, Juiced.
Finally, La Russa was able to pop a cork on number 60, with a big party at Goal Line Productions in Pleasanton. The guest list included sports legends Mark McGwire, Bob Knight, and Sparky Anderson, and author John Grisham. Still, La Russa didn’t take his eye off the prize: The party served as a fundraiser for the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), his Walnut Creek dream shelter for abandoned critters.
"During my career as a manager, people have offered me these little nuggets that have helped me survive," he says, his voice quietly intense. "And one of the most important is, ‘You’re only as good as your next victory.’ The last one is done, so don’t ever sit there and reflect on a win; just start pushing for the next."
The Family First
As passionate as he is about his work and his cause, La Russa says his family (wife, Elaine, daughters Bianca, 25, and Devon, 22, and, of course, his animal companions—three dogs, three cats, and a tarantula sustains him.
For example, when Ripken came to Walnut Creek in November to speak at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, La Russa was watching the Bolshoi Ballet in Berkeley. "I was going to [go and] say hi to Cal, but I couldn’t," he says. "My kids said, ‘Dad, we’re going to the Bolshoi tonight.’"
The La Russas keep close company during those precious months when Tony isn’t on the road with the Cardinals, but they don’t stay at home much. A peek at his date book reveals a social schedule that never stops: Backstage visits to concerts by ARF’s many musical friends, trips to a dizzying array of dance performances around the Bay Area, even a family outing to a roadhouse saloon to watch Devon’s boyfriend’s band rock the house.
Tony and Elaine have kept up this kind of pace ever since they met in Richmond, Virginia, in 1972, as La Russa was nearing the end of his playing career. The couple found they shared a love of animals (and later, a love of vegetarian cuisine). "I think Tony married me because it was a package deal: I came with a dog and a cat," says Elaine. "Tony’s mom had phobias about animals, so he wasn’t allowed to have pets when he was growing up."
Back then, Elaine didn’t think she was marrying into the world of Major League Baseball. La Russa had reached "The Show" as an infielder with the Kansas City A’s in 1963, just a year after graduating from Jefferson High School in Tampa, Florida, but he played the next 14 years mostly in the minor leagues, due to arm injuries that left him unable to throw at big-league strength. Planning for a post-baseball career, he was working toward a law degree from Florida State University.
"I thought I was marrying a lawyer," Elaine says.
In 1978, however, legendary Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck hired La Russa to manage a minor league team. And in ’79, the owner made La Russa’s passing of the Florida State bar exam that year moot by promoting the 34-year-old to manager of the White Sox. In 1986, he joined the A’s and brought his family to the East Bay. When La Russa moved on to manage St. Louis in 1996, Elaine and the kids stayed in Alamo.
"We raised our kids here, and we wanted them to stay here," La Russa explains. "Contra Costa is very unique. It’s a terrific blend of everything you need. You’re close to so many exciting things, but it’s small enough to make small-town relationships."
The Dean of the Dugout
La Russa may like the small-town vibe, but his 26-year career is undeniably big-time. The manager has led four teams to the World Series—including the 1988–1990 Oakland A’s—and won one championship. He’s also mentored some of the game’s greats, including McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, and Albert Pujols. And if his Cardinals win 81 games this year, he will become the manager with the third-most wins in baseball history, cementing his reputation as one of baseball’s sharpest minds.
That mind is prominently on display in Three Nights in August, a collaboration between La Russa and H. G. "Buzz" Bissinger, which is being released this month. Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize winner best known for his book Friday Night Lights, which became a high-profile movie starring Billy Bob Thornton in 2004. When La Russa thought about publishing a book to raise money for ARF (all his royalties go to the foundation), Bissinger’s name came up as the perfect man to write it. La Russa had been fascinated by the way Friday Night Lights combed through the culture of high school football in rural Texas from a range of perspectives. Bissinger, a contributing editor/writer at Vanity Fair, had always been impressed by La Russa’s "heat-seeking intensity," and immediately agreed.
Avoiding the straightforward as-told-to formula of sports biographies, the book reveals La Russa’s baseball wisdom over the course of a three-game series between the Cardinals and their archrivals, the Chicago Cubs. The series offers an exciting narrative backdrop for the manager’s tales about the pressures of professional sports, players in the big-money era, and steroid-fueled sluggers.
Bissinger spent one year shadowing La Russa. "I’ve been a journalist for close to 30 years. Not many subjects talk honestly about themselves," Bissinger says. "[La Russa] never said to leave the room or to look away. Both Tony and Elaine spoke with incredible candor about the personal compromises that he had to make to be successful in baseball.
"When Tony was managing the White Sox, Elaine became sick with pneumonia. Tony didn’t go home; he sent his sister to look after her," Bissinger says. "A lot of people would never mention that because it doesn’t look very good, and he’s still haunted by it, 20 years later."
Of course, the book contains plenty of fascinating anecdotes and poetic dugout musings that the unrelentingly competitive La Russa has refined over decades of driving for success. We find out that even a law degree has not immunized the manager from good old-fashioned superstition.
Consider the time, early in his managerial career with the White Sox, when Chicago fans were rabid enough to make death threats against La Russa because of the team’s poor performance. The manager had to wear a flak jacket under his uniform during games. When the White Sox suddenly got hot, the threats subsided, but La Russa kept wearing the flak jacket because he didn’t want to break the winning streak.
This season, La Russa enters the first year of a three-year extension as the St. Louis manager, which means he should be with the club when the Cardinals open a new ballpark in 2007. But La Russa refuses to look that far ahead. "In spring training I must prove that I deserve to be the manager on opening day—then I need to prove that I should have the club at the All-Star break," La Russa says. "Then I should prove that I should have the club at the end of the season, hopefully into the postseason. I need the organization and the players to feel that I deserve to be there."
Bissinger says he’s seen that kind of drive before. "Tony has the disease that many people of passion have," he says. "I wrote a book about Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, who was enormously successful. But the second any success was achieved, he was on to the next goal. Tony is like that: He never, ever rests on his laurels."
The ARF Season
Baseball dominates La Russa’s life eight months of the year (nine if his team gets to the World Series). But November, December, and January are about family and the 14-year-old organization that he cofounded with his wife after a stray cat ran onto the field during an A’s game. Baseball’s off-season, as La Russa puts it, is his "ARF season."
La Russa is more than a mouthpiece for Walnut Creek’s cutting-edge animal shelter, as longtime ARF volunteers can attest. Chris and Marcie Christensen of Pleasant Hill recall with undiminished surprise the cleanup after an all-day fundraiser in 1995. "We had to break down the tents," says Marcie. "It got so dark that the volunteers had to point their car headlights where we were working. I looked to my side and there was Tony, standing on a crate, taking down the tents in the dark with the rest of the volunteers."
That sort of dedication has drawn the attention of other big names. Hotshot performers like Chris Isaak, Clint Black, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Bruce Hornsby, Wynonna Judd, and Vince Gill have all entertained at ARF’s annual—and much anticipated—Stars to the Rescue concerts each January at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts.
"I’d be lying if I told you I know everything that ARF does," says Gill, who performed this past January. "But I’ve learned over the years that you help people like Tony, people who are making a positive difference in the world, because that’s how things get done."
All this effort has so far raised more than $12.4 million of the $17 million needed to pay off ARF’s remarkable Walnut Creek facility. Opened in August 2003, the building is a haven of plush kitty condos and doggie digs where animal lovers adopted more than 1,800 pets last year. "If I get sick, I want to go there," says singer Chris Isaak, who played the first ARF benefit and returned in 2004.
"The neatest thing," La Russa says, "is that when I come home [to the East Bay], people come up to me on the street and they’ll say, ‘I have an ARF dog’ or ‘ARF is a wonderful organization.’ They usually say something about ARF, and not about baseball."
La Russa smiles as he says this, and for just an instant, he looks satisfied.
And then his cell phone buzzes again. It’s another celebrity checking
in about a fundraising idea for ARF. La Russa takes the call. It’s time
to go after that next big win.