The Golden Guy
Tony La Russa talks about what it takes to fight to the big win
On a chilly October night in St. Louis,Tony La Russa exulted. The ball settled into the catcher’s glove, and Busch Stadium erupted into a symphony of joyous noise: The Cardinals, improbably, were World Series champions. La Russa finally had returned to the summit of baseball, a quest that has consumed virtually every waking moment of his life since he became a Major League manager in 1979—at least from February through October, year after year after year.
Fifteen days later, on a rainy November morning in Walnut Creek, La Russa reflected. He sat in his comfortable office at the sprawling Animal Rescue Foundation, casually dressed in dark jeans, a Yellow Dog T-shirt, and an untucked, long-sleeved denim shirt. Amid the squeal of nearby animals and the bustling activity of imminent adoptions, La Russa savored his sporting success—and contemplated how to balance his high-profile, Midwest-based job with his off-season passion, ARF, here in the Bay Area.
ARF existed when La Russa appeared on the cover of this magazine more than 12 years ago but without a sparkling, state-of-the-art, 37,700-square-foot headquarters (it opened in August 2003). As the organization has expanded its programs in recent years, the facility, La Russa says, has enhanced ARF’s credibility and helped him attract donors and entertainers to the annual fundraising events, ARF Rocks and Stars to the Rescue, scheduled this year for January 5 and 6.
Still, La Russa’s strongest cachet is his long run as one of baseball’s most visible managers. He has guided his teams to more victories (2,297) than all but two managers in Major League history, and St. Louis’s championship not only made him just the second manager to win a title in both leagues, it also probably cemented his entry into the Hall of Fame one day. But in the course of a wide-ranging 90-minute conversation, La Russa, 62, offered images beyond that of an all-knowing, grim-faced leader. It turns out he’s insecure enough to talk to himself before every game and introspective enough to wonder how much longer he can leave his family (and his animals) each February for the eight-month grind of a baseball season.
Diablo: How was the feeling different when you won the World Series this time, as opposed to 1989 with the A’s?
There were dramatic differences, because ’89 was building off ’88. In ’88, we had our first really good year—104 wins: The club played so well for so long and beat a very good Boston team four straight in the playoffs. Then we go into the World Series and get shocked by the Dodgers. So what I remember about ’89 is, we were on a mission. We had a club that was motivated, talented, playing really well at the end, and had worked hard to maintain its edge. That’s a manager’s dream.
The Cardinals] had a painful year [in 2006] in a lot of ways. We had periods of really good play and periods where we didn’t play well at all, including the final two weeks of the season. [The Cardinals’ 83 wins were the fewest of any playoff team.] But there are eight teams in the postseason, and any one of them can win. All it takes is a club getting excited and concentrating on executing. So this wasn’t a great team peaking, like in ’89. It was a team that did the essentials: We got excited, and we executed our ass off.
And for you personally? You didn’t really have a chance to celebrate in ’89 because of the earthquake. What was that feeling like for you, after the final out of the  series?
It was an absolute thrill. I’m not taking anything away from the Oakland title, but you get older, and it’s the most thrilling moment you can have in uniform, just overwhelming. I didn’t appreciate it in ’89. Every other postseason since then, especially in St. Louis, you ended up with an emptiness in your gut, in your heart, in your head. You’d have to force yourself to reflect on how many great things happened during the regular season. So for the first time [in 2006], you didn’t have the emptiness. You had a full feeling, like, “Man, we got it done!”
You make a good point. The feeling must have been different at age 62 than at 45.
No doubt. The older you get, the more you enjoy the wins and the more you suffer the losses, because you know you’re not looking at 10 to 15 more years. It’s over pretty soon.
As you’ve gotten older and gained more experience as a manager, do you find yourself taking more risks or fewer risks?
I think my philosophy about risk-taking is exactly the same as it was the first time I managed. But I’ve got more experience, so I think I do a better job of assessing what’s at stake.
I’ve always trusted my gut. As you get older, you realize that’s the only way to survive. The [media] microscope is getting worse and worse. You make a decision, and if it works, it’s a good move. If it doesn’t work, it’s a bad move. But you’re dead if you worry, “What if it doesn’t work and I get criticized?” Before I leave the clubhouse, I literally look in the mirror and say, “When I come back in, I don’t want to be embarrassed to look at you.” I do corny [stuff] like that all the time.
You actually stand in front of the mirror and say that?
Before every game, I swear.
You still do that now?
Every game. So when I’m out there, you get my best shot. And if you think I stayed with the pitcher too long or I took him out too quickly or should have bunted, that’s OK. But you got my best shot. That mirror is part of how I survive.
What are the seeds of your managerial skills, the biggest factors in your success?
The biggest awakening toward the end of my playing career was when I was a player-coach for two years for Loren Babe in the White Sox organization [1975–76]. Loren would allow me to ask questions no matter how the game went. He used to call me Geronimo, because I had the long hair. He’d say, “Go ahead, Geronimo, I know you want to ask a question.” So for two years, he gave me an awareness that managing is so much more than players think it is.
In our 1994 interview for Diablo, I asked you to describe yourself in one word. You said, “relentless.” Does that still apply?
Well, if you believe [what you’re doing is] your responsibility and you’re not relentless, then it’s time to do something else for a living. A lot of people can judge whether I’ve changed or not, but I think I’m as relentless as ever.
The Cardinals overcame long odds to win the World Series, much as ARF did in growing into what it is today. What kind of parallels do you see between the two? You didn’t originally envision a facility like this for ARF, did you?
The parallel to me is getting the dream going and the energy you derive from it. The baseball season is demanding; it can beat you up. But in the morning, you get up and you’re ready to go because you know what you’re chasing. Well, I come home during the winter, and I’m gassed. But this morning I had no problem getting up. … The ARF dream started out small: Elaine [La Russa’s wife] and I just wanted to save some dogs and cats that were being euthanized.
Do you remember the moment the idea germinated?
We’ve always loved animals. And then when I managed [minor league] Des Moines in 1979, the team doctor and his wife were part of the Animal Rescue League. … Then, as we started learning more about euthanizing rates and what the answers are—spaying, neutering, and adoption—it coincided with my having some success with teams in the Major Leagues. So I started using [my increased visibility] to make two or three appearances at shelters. It started in Chicago and really picked up with the A’s. Then, here in Contra Costa, we were involved with Community Concern for Cats.
We started looking into starting a nonprofit [in 1990 and ’91]. We were thinking that if we could rescue 50 or 100 dogs and cats a year, that’s 50 to 100 that wouldn’t die. But after a couple of years, we did more and more. We were having brainstorming sessions, and we came out thinking we needed to convince the people who are not as passionate as we are about animals. We thought about programs where the animals rescue the people. I can’t tell you the significance of that decision.
Why has that been so important?
It opened so many doors for us. An animal in your lap for a senior is the best kind of companionship. We also have a therapy program [in which incarcerated teen girls socialize animals for adoption] that we’ve been doing for years. This is a beautiful concept. Nonprofits such as ourselves go in there and take animals that would otherwise be euthanized. … These teenagers socialize the animals, and we place them with people. What’s the analogy to their own lives? You give somebody love and affection, and boom—all of a sudden, you see these cats bounding around. We’ve had girls come out and give testimonials about what it’s meant to their lives.
What’s the senior program about?
We have something called the Visiting Animal Program, where we have dogs and cats that are qualified because of their temperament. They visit senior homes, or the seniors come here. I’ll give you a great example. One of the first years we tried this, there was a senior home in Walnut Creek. I got Eck [Dennis Eckersley], [Mark] McGwire, and [Dave] Stewart to go with me into this senior home with Stacy Moore and His Mess of Mutts. We have probably 100 to 120 seniors in this big room. The director introduces me, I introduce the players, and the seniors all applaud politely. Then the guy introduces Stacy, he talks about the dogs, and they do a little show. After the show, the dogs start going around—and those seniors could not have cared less about Eck, Mac, and Stew. It was like, “Oh, hi, Dennis, get out of the way, there’s that dog.” I went, “Holy (bleep).” People were all about the dogs and petting them. It really is like magical therapy.
Your favorite dog, Res, died over the summer. How difficult was that?
I wish I had been there to say goodbye to him. I don’t want to get too corny about it, but I didn’t tell anybody for a week because I didn’t want to talk about him. Finally, Walt [Jocketty, the Cardinals’ general manager] said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” It really affected me, because I kept thinking about Res. I couldn’t believe how much I loved this dog. He just had the most beautiful heart.
What’s the next step for ARF?
One is that we want to solidify what we do here in Northern California. So whether it’s the animal care or the people connect, we want to get our programs up and running to where we’re maxing out their efficiency. We have an opportunity to do some work with ASPCA [the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], and we also have a partnership with Target and Purina. One of the first things was dog and cat ornaments for sale at Target, and a portion of the proceeds go to ARF. We’re going to do some collaborations like that when we can be helpful beyond Northern California.
A couple of quick, semi-personal questions: Is ARF the reason you never really considered moving to St. Louis full time?
It was a big reason. The biggest reason was when our family came here in ’86, [daughters] Bianca and Devon were eight and five. And contrary to the manager thing of “rent, don’t buy,” we thought, “let’s take a shot.” So we built a home. We love the home and love the area. Our daughters are now 27 and 24, and their roots are here, their lives are here. Eleven years ago, they were in their teens, and there was no way we would [move to St. Louis].
As you might recall, Elaine was candid about the craziness of your life in ’94, even before you started working 2,000 miles from home. How difficult has it been managing in St. Louis? You once acknowledged that your daughters knew they got “less than your best,” and that was when you managed in Oakland.
I have terrific regrets. I think I could have worked fewer hours and done as well. But you get into this “get to the ballpark early, stay late” thing. … We’d have more opportunities to see each other if I were still in Oakland, but you’re still on the road half the season. The other half, you’re going to the park early and staying late. So there are only a couple dozen more nights we could see each other and have dinner. It hasn’t been easy. I’m not trying to be the hero, but the girls have each other and they have the animals. Hey, I’ve got the [difficult] players. It’s not even close.
I gather the 2,000-mile “commute” is more feasible now that the girls are older.
If they were eight and five, we’d have done it differently. You get to the middle of February, you go to spring training, and you’re looking at eight and a half months of coming back on Sunday night maybe once a month, spending the off day Monday, and taking the red-eye back. That’s a pretty good sacrifice. I enjoy seeing the girls and I enjoy seeing the animals. I don’t know how much longer …
That’s the natural follow-up question: How long can you keep this up?
There’s no doubt I think about it more often. I’ve got one more year on my contract, and to survive you have to think game to game, series to series. At this point, I’m just thinking about 2007. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but I don’t think I’ve said it publicly too much: I have this interest in being part of a club but not in the dugout. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but I’m interested, if there’s an appropriate situation.
Would you consider being a general manager?
I don’t think so. That’s way too difficult a job. You have to get into that thing with a ton of energy, and I don’t think I have that energy. I don’t know.
It sounds like you’re brainstorming to find a way to stay involved in the game but also create more time for your other interests.
Yeah … yeah. I don’t even know what the role would be—something not in the dugout but where I still would be involved in trying to get a club in a winning position.