La Russa built bridge to today's game

Friday, November 9, 2012
Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa speaks to the media at the Show Me Center before his Southeast Missouri State University’s Speaker Series presentation Thursday. La Russa led the Cardinals to three National League championships and to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. (Laura Simon)

It's been said baseball managers are hired to be fired.

If you don't believe me, ask Ozzie Guillen, released this past September by Miami after the Marlins failed to live up to lofty expectations.

Or ask the three managers fired during or after the 2011 season.

Heck, just ask the ghost of Billy Martin.

Today's manager must successfully blend the prodigious ego of a star player with the fragile psyche of a veteran nearing the end of his career and the boundless spirit of a fast-rising rookie, and mix well in a recipe he hopes will produce a winning product on the field.

It takes a special breed. Guys like Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver were masters at maintaining a winning chemistry in the clubhouse. Today, guys like Jim Leyland, Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy carry on that legacy.

I'd put Tony La Russa in the first group. La Russa, who managed for 33 major-league seasons -- the last 16 in St. Louis -- and wears three World Series rings, helped revolutionize the way baseball is played today.

La Russa, presently a consultant for Major League Baseball, was known for his meticulous preparation and statistical analysis. It could be argued he has applied what he learned in baseball to his business life today.

Or vice-versa.

"You've got to be willing to lead," La Russa said before his speech on "Leading Successful Teams" Thursday night at the Show Me Center. "Somebody might have the qualities but they don't want to stand up in front and say, ‘Follow me.' And then it comes down to the type of leader you are. The industry I know the best is sports, and if you want to be a leader, you have to earn respect."

It's something La Russa gleaned from studying Anderson, the former manager in Cincinnati and Detroit who inspired a young La Russa back in the 1970s.

La Russa said Anderson was willing to help anyone who showed "a sincere interest" in bettering himself.

"The only criteria was, one, you had to be sincere, and two, once he gave you the time he expected you to learn it and apply it," La Russa remembered.

The young skipper took those lessons to heart and proceeded to meticulously study every nuance of the game of baseball, right down to players' batting averages against certain pitchers and pitches and on differing counts in an at-bat.

What transpired was a different way to manage, utilizing an entire roster, right down to set-up men in the bullpen and utility players in pinch-hitting roles.

The results -- 2,763 managerial wins (third all-time behind Connie Mack and John McGraw) -- speak for themselves. But they didn't come without a sure foundation carefully put in place.

"You start at zero every year," La Russa said. "Earn respect among the coaches. And trust, they've got to trust you. If they don't trust you and you don't have their respect, then you don't have a chance, no matter how well you know the game. And then you've got to show that you care.

"And I think a lot of that translates to industry as well."

That personal investment has become a staple for La Russa in his business dealings today, especially when it comes to the Animal Rescue Foundation, started by La Russa and his wife, Elaine, in 1991. Since retiring after his Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, La Russa has helped his Foundation build a $17-million, 38,000-square-foot facility in Walnut Creek, Calif.

He credits today's players with helping in those -- and other -- endeavors.

"Over the last 10, 12 years, players have really gotten into giving something back and getting involved in the community. ... It's a very healthy situation and I think it's great."

He still criss-crosses the country each year, raising awareness and funding for various shelters that provide a safe haven for pets dropped off at facilities around the country on a daily basis.

He has plenty of time.

"I'm not gonna manage [any more]," he laughed. "I know that's gone."

Scott Roscovius is sports editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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