Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be giving the commencement speech at Washington University this spring. In case he is busy, I have written a speech for him.
My name is Tony La Russa, and I’d like to thank Washington University for inviting me. But before I begin, let me express my solidarity with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As you know, she was invited to receive an honorary degree and speak at Brandeis University. That invitation was rescinded when some people accused her of being “Islamophobic.” I think the university’s decision to disinvite her was an affront to the notion of universities as bastions of critical thinking and free speech. I hope every speaker at every commencement across the country mentions her.
Now let me begin. I want to tell you how complicated life is. You think you already know? You don’t.
That’s all right. You’re young. Young eyes do not pick up the shades of gray that old eyes do. For instance, some of you were recently protesting the university’s investments in Peabody Coal. You think the coal industry is bad for the environment — first when the coal is dug up, and then when it is burned. It seems simple.
When I was your age, I thought I was going to be a baseball player. I made my major league debut when I was 19. I was sure I was going to be a star. But I got hurt. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Still, I pursued my dream. I was in the major leagues for parts of six seasons. You know how many hits I got? Thirty-five.
I spent years in the minors. I started going to law school in the offseason. I got my law degree when I was 34. That was in 1978. In those days, a law degree was a ticket to the upper middle class. I had a comfortable future staring me in the face.
But I had a chance to manage in the minors. I chose to do that. It worked out. Eventually, I got a chance to manage the White Sox. For a while, that worked out. Then I got fired.
I was hired by the Oakland A’s.
Now I’m going to talk about something I never talk about — steroids. I want you to understand how complicated life is. I have said in the past that I have no direct knowledge of any of my players using steroids.
What did I tell you a minute ago? I went to law school. I learned how to talk like a lawyer. No direct knowledge. I never saw anybody inject themselves.
Let’s just say that when I was in Oakland — with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire — I had my suspicions. How could I not have suspected? I’ve been around athletes all my life. I’ve seen guys work out. Nobody blew up like these guys.
But life is complicated. When I played, guys were popping pills. Trying to be more alert. Now they were trying to get bigger. It didn’t seem outrageous.
Plus, it seemed to help. We were winning. What was I supposed to do?
And so we entered the Steroid Era.
Of course, it didn’t really become apparent that we were in a new era until 1998 when McGwire and Sammy Sosa started hitting all those home runs. Babe Ruth had 60 in 1927. Roger Maris had 61 in 1961. And those were outliers. Hardly anybody ever hit 50 home runs. Suddenly, Sosa hit 66 and McGwire hit 70.
What do you think happened? Did the commissioner order an investigation?
Hell, no. Greatest thing since sliced bread. All the writers could talk about was how these two guys had saved baseball. They were heroes.
Before long, they were villains. The same writers who had proclaimed them heroes were suddenly at their throats. People wonder why I don’t like the media. No, that’s not right. People don’t wonder. The media wonders. It’s because they build you up until they want to tear you down.
Now I’m in the Hall of Fame. McGwire isn’t. Sosa isn’t. Life is complicated.
I’ve heard people say that steroids took some magic away from baseball. The great home run records don’t mean anything any more. Used to be that if some slugger had a hot spring and early summer, the papers would run charts showing how he was doing in relation to Ruth in ‘27 or Maris in ‘61. That doesn’t happen any more.
Barry Bonds holds the new record at 73. Nobody clean is going to approach that.
It might have started in Oakland, but I couldn’t have stopped it. Once players realized they could get bigger, they were going to get bigger. Can you blame them? The difference between a good player and a very good player is measured in the millions. It can be the difference between being in the minors or in the majors.
Life is complicated. Don’t be so judgmental about coal. Or anything else.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Roger Maris hits 61 home runs in 1961. Earlier version of this column had an incorrect year.