Tony La Russa is on his way to watch the Class AA Springfield Cardinals play the Frisco Roughriders in Game 2 of the Texas League championship series.
He’s not in southern Missouri for fun, necessarily, though he is enjoying himself these days. He’s attending Tuesday’s game as a special adviser to Commissioner Bud Selig, who wants a Major League Baseball presence in as many of the nation’s ballparks as possible.
In between trips for the commissioner and responsibilities for his beloved Animal Rescue Foundation, La Russa is about to embark on a multi-city publicity tour for “One Last Strike,” written with longtime Post-Dispatch Cardinals writer Rick Hummel. The book officially goes on sale Sept. 25, but La Russa has a special release party the day before and then a packed week of book signings in St. Louis.
Wait a minute. Isn’t the former Cards manager supposed to be retired?
“Yeah, I thought I was going to take naps,” he says with a laugh. “But the girls (La Russa’s wife, Elaine, and daughters, Bianca and Devon) put the suitcase by the door and they want me to leave, so I leave.”
Joking aside, this year has actually been more hectic than what La Russa, 67, has been used to over the course of his 50 years in baseball. A regular season “is pretty structured,” he says. “You go and you play the games.” But this year, “because of the variety of travel, I’ve been pretty busy.”
“One Last Strike” is an in-depth look at the Cardinals’ wondrous 2011 season, which had them playing with their backs to the wall constantly in the waning weeks of the season, only to come back each time — most notably in Game 6 of the World Series — and then win it all.
La Russa, a dedicated lover of books, knows a fairy-tale ending when he sees one.
“You almost couldn’t make it up,” he says. “If you hadn’t seen it, or if there wasn’t a tape of it you could watch, if you had written this, it would be fiction. That’s one of the reasons I got fired up as we got into the telling of it. Being able to recall all the stuff that happened, there was really a lot of drama.”
The idea of the book, as it was distilled for La Russa by his publishers at HarperCollins, was “to answer the simple question, ‘How did we do it?’” he says.
The answer, predictably, is considerably more involved.
Across 400 pages, La Russa goes deep into describing his view of the Cards’ 2011 season — through the lows of losing pitching ace Adam Wainwright to injury in spring training, and the eventual high of winning a wild card playoff berth on the last day of the season — one of the most exciting finishes to an MLB season ever. The team, of course, went on to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the division series, the Milwaukee Brewers in the league championship series and the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
The book covers everything from the intense preparations that La Russa and his staff put the players through to the strategy that he employed during numerous games.
“In the end, strategy is a matter of opinion,” he says. “And one of the most special parts of our game is that you can sit in the stands and, if you have good knowledge of baseball, you can have your own opinion of what a pitcher should throw, or whether you bunt and play for a run, or who you’d have pinch-hit. You look at a manager’s strategy, and it could be different from yours. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?
“Most of the time, it comes down to, if it works, it was right; if it didn’t, you should have done something different.”
TAKING THE BLAME
La Russa’s explanation of his decisions — and even his taking the blame for occasionally making the wrong call — is one of the book’s great strengths. Consider a long passage deep into the book discussing a situation in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the World Series.
Ian Kinsler, a base-stealing threat for the Rangers, is on first. Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte is on the mound. La Russa knows that Motte has two different motions to the plate: his full motion, which has a better chance of producing a strike, takes 1.4 seconds to complete. His hurry-up motion, which may give catcher Yadier Molina the edge in throwing out a base stealer, takes only 1.2 seconds, but might also result in a pitch higher in the strike zone and easier to hit.
La Russa considers his options and calls for the full motion. Kinsler steals second and eventually scores. The Cardinals lose, and La Russa beats himself up over it.
Branch Rickey once said that baseball is “a game of inches.” “One Last Strike” makes plain that it’s a game of microseconds as well.
But there is more to the book than minutia.
There’s enough about La Russa’s management style of “preparation and personalization” to fuel a corporate consulting business. There are also flashbacks to the whole of La Russa’s career, from his first day as an 18-year-old shortstop for the Kansas City Athletics to his managing stints with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and, of course, the Cardinals.
“One Last Strike” doesn’t court controversy, but neither does it shy away from talking about rough patches La Russa has faced over the years, including disagreements over playing time with Cardinals great Ozzie Smith and Mark McGwire’s eventual admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs. La Russa said it was important to include that material, but he wanted to make sure that in telling his side he “didn’t throw anybody under the bus.”
The book also has flashes of humor. La Russa describes his mortification over the bullpen snafu of World Series Game 5, when, due to garbled phone communications, Lance Lynn appeared on the mound instead of Jason Motte. La Russa had Lynn, who by rule had to face one batter, deliver an intentional walk before finally getting the pitcher he wanted. As a manager considered by many as the “father of the modern bullpen,” La Russa wondered if he would go down in history as “the guy who created the intentional walk specialist for the nonwalk situation.”
In 2005, La Russa collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger on “Three Nights in August,” an intense breakdown of a series of games typifying the heated, age-old rivalry between the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
Working on “One Last Strike,” La Russa says, was “180 degrees different. Buzz and I had the conversations, and he was around to make observations. But he took all the material and wrote the story. But this one, the publisher wanted it to be told in my voice. That’s why I worked with Rick Hummel. I knew he knew the Cardinals going way back, and he knew my 16 years with the team and he knew the 2011 season. So the biggest difference was Buzz interpreting the information in “Three Nights” and this one being told from my vantage point, with my voice.”
With a deadline looming to get the book out before the end of the current season, La Russa and Hummel worked feverishly on the manuscript. When Hummel was called away to his regular duties with the Post-Dispatch, another writer (and former college pitcher), Gary Brozek, came in to relieve Hummel and help bring the project in on time. “It was a team effort,” La Russa says.
Beyond promoting the book and working for MLB, La Russa continues to raise money for ARF. He’s reserved a date in January at the Peabody Opera House for his annual benefit concert but is still gauging the level of sponsor and public interest in the event. “I don’t want to be a distraction and constantly show up,” he says. “Right now it’s 50-50” as to whether the show will go on.
He is, however, putting together a November ARF benefit called “Legends and Leaders” that will include appearances by former Cardinals Bob Gibson and Joe Torre, basketball coach Bob Knight, and others, at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
MULLING A MOVIE
La Russa is also still mulling a movie version of “Three Nights in August.” The first few scripts weren’t satisfactory, he says, so Bissinger took the task in hand and wrote a fictionalized version, moving the action to a Cardinals/White Sox World Series. Ironically, last year’s Cardinals season came perilously close to following, or even topping Bissinger’s fictional version. Now there’s talk of somehow combining “Three Nights” with “One Last Strike” into one script. Actor (and devoted Cardinals fan) Billy Bob Thornton remains attached to the project. He wants to play pitching coach Dave Duncan.
La Russa also maintains friendships with his former players, including Albert Pujols, to whom he delivered a World Series ring not long ago. Though he acknowledges the rift that exists between the former Cardinal and some St. Louis fans, La Russa maintains that neither Pujols nor the team’s ownership and front office were to blame for what happened. “Blame the system,” he says.
Ultimately, he thinks the raw feelings between Pujols and the fans will be healed.
“One of the things I enjoyed the most about the Midwestern people is their fairness and their forgiveness and their recognition of who’s good and who’s not,” he says.
“And Albert was a model citizen and a model player for a long time. In my opinion, I’m sure that every day that passes, the great majority of memories and recollections about Albert, Dee and their family is going to be very, very special and will give him that great place that he deserves.
“In Albert’s case, Dee is getting ready to have another baby and their life goes on. They still have a presence in St. Louis. Ideally, he would have stayed forever. But we’re all going to make the best of it as we go forward.”
‘One Last Strike’
By Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel
Published by William Morrow, 420 pages, $27.99
On sale Sept. 25