CenterStage Preview: Tony La Russa
La Russa on the movie Moneyball:
Well, its cost guys jobs. Moneyball was a nice, simple story that was really well told. The accuracy of it is about 25 percent. The game is played with men, and every day human nature’s a part of it. I get really upset even to this day when people make claims about what metrics can do. I don’t discount that they have a value. But they’ll actually make claims that they can, you can write a better lineup, you have to have a better strategy, use your bullpen. That’s been tried and it doesn’t because it doesn’t factor in that day Michael is up, down, sideways, and you make a decision based on what you see different about Michael. In fact, Art Howe is very respected by a lot of people. He was portrayed as kind of like a buffoon. It’s very unfair to him. I take that personal because one of the guys that are the chief of that [Moneyball concept] is Billy Beane. Well, Billy Beane was on our 1989 club as an extra outfielder. So his opinion about how worthless managers are had to have been formed watching me manage. And for that point I don’t disagree because if, when you’re around the, those Oakland clubs, as I said, they’re push-button clubs, you didn’t have to do a lot. It’s a very unfair, even the story, think about it. They won 20 in a row, and it was all because Scott played first base, because he can get on base and they made one insignificant trade. There wasn’t anything about there were three horses in the rotation, or -- Tejada or Chavez. I mean, think about it.
La Russa discusses how he is still haunted by Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, in which he managed the A’s against the Dodgers, when Dennis Eckersley gave up the home run to Kirk Gibson:
It haunts me because we had the better team. It haunts me because Tom Lasorda did a much better job at getting his club ready to play than I did. He got them fired up to compete and I just took it for granted that we were going to be the same. Now, I don’t want to disrespect the A’s, it’s just that, it all hinged on that one game. And I don’t have a real bad vibe because it was Kirk Gibson. As you know, during our time, Kirk Gibson was one of the great competitors. Eck flipped a pitch up there and Gibson hit it out. It changed that one game and impacted the whole World Series. And I have got the video. It shows the dugout. And Ron Hassey, who very often would look to Dave, and he went just like this to Ron Hassey. In other words, “Finish him, out over the plate and up.” And so we threw a couple out there, he fouled ‘em off. And then Hunt, Hassey tried to get cute. Went 3?2, thought he had too many fastballs. So, I really believe that history would be different if we would have thrown him a high fastball. Kirk might have blooped it in there to tie the game -- he wouldn’t hit a home run on the pitch. But it wasn’t the finishing pitch and that’s the rest of the story.
On managing the White Sox at Yankee Stadium on the day of the burial of Thurman Munson:
As many breaks as I didn’t catch supposedly as a player with all the injuries, I caught every break in the world as a manager. You see, I only managed parts of two years in the minor leagues. And in ’79, in August, there I am in the majors. But you may not know this, but, the headline the next day at the bottom was, “The White Sox hire LaRussa.” At the top, “Munson crashes his plane and dies.” And so the first games that I managed, first of all, was a weekend in Toronto. And then we came over to New York. And I think that Monday was the day that they had the burial. And man, that was maybe one of the saddest days at a ballpark I have ever been at. And the Yankees were absolutely destroyed. And I mean, I think about it now. I remember seeing Billy [Martin] and I went to exchange lineup cards and you wanted to hug him and just say, “Look, let’s just forfeit, you can have it.” But it was terrible.
On his decision to choose a Bonneville over a T-Bird after signing with the Kansas City A’s:
Graduation, that night, got the diploma, went home; because there was no draft, there was 24 teams; there were 20 teams there that made offers that night. At about two or three in the morning it had gotten down to Cleveland and the Kansas City A’s. And that was during the time where Charley Finley would actively go visit, and Catfish, Blue Moon; in fact, he said the only mistake he ever made was me. But his visit really was the difference, and Charlie said, just pick the car you want, and if that’ll make the deal. I say, yeah, OK, so sign with Kansas City A’s in 1962. No, he wanted me to pick a T-Bird. Yeah. I said no. I selected a Bonneville.
On his first appearance in a Major League game:
Well, I was there [in the majors] for a while, and they pinch ran me several times. Ed Runge was the umpire at first base when I first pinch ran; he says, “Hey, welcome to the big leagues kid, and don’t ever bark at the umpires.” And one of the first times I did actually get a chance to play, because I ended up getting 44 at-bats. Every first pitch fastball I swung at, I got, hit .250, I thought I was going to be a phenom. The first time that I went to bat when Ed was behind the plate, the pitch came, and the catcher dove at it outside, and he said, strike one. And he just looks at me; I said, “Hey, good call.” And he said, “You know kid, you're going to be alright.” But, I remember my first at-bat, it was a pinch-hit, and I actually hit a line drive to center field, and Billy Bruton made a shoestring catch. The next time I pinch-hit, I hit a line drive to right center for a triple. So, I look back and I think this is what a lousy career looks like. All my highlights were just really meaningless pinch-hits here, pinch running.
On deciding whether to become a lawyer or a baseball manager in 1977:
Well, I went to law school for the first time ’73, ’74. The ’75 season I went to Denver, which was a White Sox Triple-A team, as a player-coach, under a great man, an ex-Yankee, Loren Babe. I was with Loren, and all of a sudden, he opened up the whole managing thing to me. He encouraged me to ask him questions. And two years with Loren, I went, “Wow,” there is so much more, not just trying to figure out who to pitch and I mean too, the whole psychology of reading your team, and bringing guys together. That really got my engine going about, and then the next year was ’77, in New Orleans, that was the last year. I was a player-coach for three years, and at that point, even though I was getting ready to graduate from law school, my wife Elaine and I did not have children at the time, and we said, look, why don’t I just get rid of this lingering thing about managing, do it one year and get out, and everything went boom, boom, fell into place. But, it was player-coaching that got me started.
Did La Russa ever give up hope in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series?
I never gave up hope, because it’s more fun not to, and you learn over experience. There’s actually a thing in a book, in the back of my lineup card I wrote those words from the Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believing.” I mean, I said that, wrote that the beginning of the game. And I also wrote “be good enough, be tough enough.” Now, the truth of it, Michael, is, and I think this is one of the neat parts of the book, that was very dramatic. I mean, we’re one strike and it’s over. But, we had faced that edge of the cliff thing a half-dozen times in September, and even in the postseason. So deep down I said, “Hey, this club, it just refuses to quit.” The other thing that I think is kind of hokey, but it’s true, the spirit in the dugout is the best I’d ever been around. They started making so much noise, it was infectious. You know? I mean, they were literally saying we, we will not lose, cannot lose. Let’s go.
How did La Russa know it was time to leave as the manager of Oakland?
It was a real easy call. I worked there, like we all did, under one of the greatest owners of all time, Walter Haas. Towards the end, he was going to sell the club and he wasn’t in good health. So I ended up staying for the ’95 season. I was actually going to leave in ’94 to go to Boston. And he asked me to stay for his “last season,” and I didn’t know what that meant. It turned out he died in September of ’95. It made sense. You know, 10 years, that’s a long time to be in one place.