Take Five: Tony La Russa, the author, talks about managing last season's Wild Cards
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - On Sept. 23, 2011, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa was at Tony’s restaurant, a few blocks from Busch Stadium, having a postgame dinner with his pals, including author John Grisham, after a disappointing 5-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
As Grisham, a lifelong Cardinals fan, writes in the foreword to La Russa’s new book "One Last Strike” (William Morrow, $27.99), the discussion was of beanballs, baseball’s codes and brawls. There was no talk about the playoffs or the World Series because it appeared that the Cardinals' run to the postseason had run out of gas.
But the miracle comeback, as Grisham and the baseball world were about to learn, had just stalled for a couple of games, adding another dose of drama to what was destined to become one of the most amazing baseball seasons.
As La Russa explains it, the 2011 World Series victory began in the dog days of August with a players-only team meeting and his “backward” thinking: to pitch ace Chris Carpenter in Game 162 and work back from there.
On Monday, a year and a day after that dinner with Grisham, the now-retired Cardinals manager will be back in downtown St. Louis, the guest of honor at the official launch party for “One Last Strike.’’ The gathering will be one more celebration of the implausible comeback of the team affectionately known in the Gateway City as the Wild Cards and known in other baseball cities as ... well, we won’t go there.
The last 12 months have been busy ones for La Russa, who announced his retirement the day after the World Series victory parade, accepted a post with Major League Baseball, and set about writing this book with St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter (and Hall of Famer) Rick Hummel, with an assist by writer Gary Brozek. La Russa felt the story of the 2011 season was an important one to tell.
“I would be really pleased if the Cardinals fans embrace the book, but I’m also hoping that it has a broader appeal. What we did to win was an example of what other clubs have done when they won: the chemistry and the refusing to give up,” said La Russa during a phone interview from Jupiter, Fla., where he was representing MLB at the World Baseball Classic Qualifier. (The event was being held at a familiar location, Roger Dean Stadium, where he spent spring trainings with the Cardinals.)
“Things just don’t fall into place and don’t just happen because you just showed up. You have to will it. You have to make it happen," La Russa said.
"One Last Strike" is an intelligently written inside-baseball book that true fans of the sport will appreciate for its depth and context. It is also a window into La Russa’s brain and his notorious masterminding -- of matching lefties and righties and calling unexpected plays that often perplexed the sea of red watching his moves from the stands at Busch Stadium. It is a playbook for how to win a World Series when you’re 10.5 games behind in August. But it’s also a lesson in team building and grit and how a manager can survive 33 season in the rough-and-tumble Major Leagues and win three World Series and six league championships.
Readers will also learn:
- That La Russa, who retired as the third-winningest manager in baseball, would have stuck around to become the second-winningest if he’d listened to his wife, Elaine.
- The story of that blasted bullpen phone at the Texas Rangers ballpark and how it affected Game 5 of the World Series.
- How in Game 6 of the World Series -- that comeback game of all comeback games -- he twice reminded his coaches to have the guys remain on the field for a few minutes if they lost to thank their fans.
While La Russa discusses dustups with certain players and other managers through the years, there is no dirt in this book. He talks in gentle terms about his strained relationship with Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and Mark McGwire’s steroid troubles. It is clear that he is fond of hometowner David Freese, the 2011 team’s postseason MVP. He gives Albert Pujols his due credit, and loudly sings the praises of Carpenter, the coaches and the rest of the team.
Mostly, the book focuses on the teamwork and spirit that La Russa credits with holding the Comeback Cards together.
“And that’s created, you know,” he said. “It’s just like with your family. It’s the same. Respect, trust and caring. It’s not accidental. There’s nothing automatic about it. I think that’s an important takeaway.”
Not surprisingly, La Russa, who is an avid reader and overachiever, is genuinely interested in hearing what readers think about his book.
“Did you read it?” he asked, early on in the interview.
“Yes, I did,” I replied, adding that I had awakened at 5 a.m. to finish the book before our mid-morning interview.
“What did you think?” he asked.
“To be honest,” I replied. “And you might find this amusing -- and you might not -- but there were times when I sat up in Section 300something at Busch, and I would turn to my daughter and say: ‘Gee whiz. I wonder what Tony La Russa is thinking.’ And now I know.”
La Russa laughed.
He will probably be hearing that a lot in coming weeks.
Here are excerpts from the Beacon’s interview with La Russa, whose presence remains at Busch Stadium not only because his uniform number 10 was officially retired by the Cardinals last spring, but also because that 2011 championship season was one for the ages.
What a difference a year makes. One year ago, you were having that dinner with John Grisham that he writes about in the foreword. On Monday, you will be in St. Louis to launch “One Last Strike.” Are you satisfied with the final product?
La Russa: During the process quite often I thought, ‘This is going to be good.’ Then you reread it so many times and you try to make it more sensible and not bulky and at the deadline you submit it. And then you kind of hold your breath and see what the judgment is. So I’m kind of holding my breath.
I’m hoping that the appeal is broad because the game is -- sports are -- a very unique part of our society, and they do reflect a lot of stuff that goes on in our private lives and in our professional lives. So we’ll see.
I had never really sat back at the end of the season and reviewed one because you’re always thinking about the next season.
I felt quite often that the pieces of the book were coming together really well. It’s such a compelling story. If you couldn’t actually roll the tape and show it, people would accuse you of creating some kind of fiction.
The book won’t be released officially until Sept. 25; have you heard any feedback yet?
La Russa: I was able to send the rough manuscript to a few people who I know that read a lot, and I tried to make it a cross-section of people who really understood baseball, that really understood sports.
Howard [Schultz, CEO of Starbucks] and another gentlemen in business said they feel that the leadership lessons apply beyond baseball. Hopefully, there’s something there because I think it’s a terrific story, and the players deserved to have it told. I think the MLB deserves to have it told. And the whole question is, ‘Did we tell it adequately, properly and, hopefully, well.’
It was a labor of love. I was really fortunate to have Rick [Hummel]. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s really talented. And Gary Brozek. For me, I wish we had another two or three weeks or a month to keep playing with it and trimming it. Adding to it. But [the publisher] wanted it to come out in the last couple of weeks of the season. We put the pedal to the metal a lot, but there it is.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
La Russa: One of my all-time favorite heroes, [retired Lt.] Gen. Hal Moore, says, ‘Even when you have three strikes, you’re still not out.’ I think that’s a philosophy to embrace. Because you’re going to be down. You have to stay after it. We talk about pressure in the book. We teach, we coach embracing pressure.
And I think distractions are out there for all of us. I think that’s an important point. Our lives now are more distracting. There’s so much stuff that goes on that it’s so easy to get distracted. You get off of what’s basic. What’s your first and second and 10th priority. In baseball, for example, we talk about the fame and fortune and how that’s potentially distracting if players put that ahead of just being excellent yourself and being part of an excellent team. If you go after fame and fortune first then you’re never really as excellent as you could be because you’re being guided by the wrong things. As you achieve some fame and fortune, you lose some motivation.
Also, there is the opinion about moneyball and the analytics. It’s a nice tool, but it’s secondary to human nature and the relationships and being guided by what you see and feel and breathe versus what’s spit out by computer. And that ties into the chemistry. The strength of that  team was the respect, trust and caring that the team built. And it was so strong that they just weren’t going to settle for anything less than trying your best. And it turned out to be a championship.
You talk about Chris Carpenter so much in the book. What do you think of his comeback this season after what was labeled a "season-ending” surgery?
La Russa: That’s no surprise. He has dealt with a lot of miseries, and he has never given into them. And when he competes, he is such a great example of what you want to do. You want to go out there and you want to lead by example. You want to compete like a maniac. You want to take responsibility. And if it works, you want to show the emotion. The happiness.
When he can’t pitch he’s more brokenhearted than the owners who are paying him, and they’re disappointed because they paid for him to perform. But he’s so disappointed that he’s letting everybody down it’s no surprise that he worked it and somehow, some way he’s going to try it. It’s the latest and greatest example of just how special he is.
Do you have a favorite chapter in the book?
La Russa: That’s a good question. [He pauses.]
We have daughters. I don’t have a favorite. We have dogs and cats at home. They’re all my favorites.
There are 23 chapters. Some you did for background. Some to go forward; others where points were being made. As we were working I thought, ‘This is solid stuff. This is stuff that’s got some real substance.’ Because it was so simple and straightforward, I like the epilogue. The points I talk about -- coincidence, good fortune -- and I ended up thinking about Roland [Hemond] and Red [Schoendienst] and how fortunate I was to work with those guys at the beginning and at the end of my career.
And I talk about legacy. There are two things: One was how we competed. Not how we prepared, but how we competed. Our competitors could decide how we rated with that. But the other one was -- and it probably surprises people -- the closeness we had on those 33 years’ worth of teams, 35 if you talk about Double-A and Triple-A.
To this day, and it happens more and more now that I’m not with the team, when I run into guys from Chicago, from Oakland, St. Louis, and from my minor league teams in Knoxville and Des Moines, the warmth and the memories that we have. To me that’s my favorite part of my career. It’s why I think that we had success -- because we had very, very close teams. When you’re with those guys, it’s like you’re still playing right now. There’s no remoteness of 20 or 30 years ago. That’s a great feeling.