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The familiar guest named Tony in Room 885
Tony's digs

The familiar guest named Tony in Room 885

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ST. LOUIS • The guest in Room 885 was known as Tony.

He corrected staff at the Chase Park Plaza hotel when, due to a reflex of their training, they employed the courtesy title and called him "Mr. La Russa." Call me Tony, he'd insist. Yes sir, Tony, a valet remembers telling him. Not sir, he heard back. Just Tony.

Yes, Tony.

Over the years that's how they knew him, this longtime guest at the Chase and longtime manager of the Cardinals, a man who appeared in the public eye to be so gruff and formal, who looked so joyless at press conferences, who seemed so serious in his handling of everything, including a baseball game.

Here at the Chase, away from all that, he was just Tony to the staff. And Tony made it a point of knowing their names, too.

It was something of an open secret that Tony lived at this upscale hotel in the city's Central West End during baseball season. He managed 16 seasons with the Cardinals, but his family stayed back home in California. Perhaps it was better this way, allowing him to focus. And when baseball was done, Tony was gone, out west.

This was somewhat unusual, especially over the course of such a long tenure and in a place like St. Louis, where former players have been known to put down roots even after their playing days are over, passing up the chance to move to some place with better weather, a little coastline. Former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog stayed. So did Mike Matheny, the team's new manager.

But the Chase was Tony's home here. He checked in just before the start of a new baseball season, in late March or early April. He checked out soon after the season was over, usually in early October. The staff had only to check the box scores to see whether they needed to extend his stay. This year, they pushed his departure to early November to accommodate the World Series.

This was how it went for nine years. He bounced between rooms on the hotel side and the Chase's executive apartment and condo tower, depending on what was available and what was being renovated.

The last couple of years he was on the eighth floor.

'HE WAS A VERY LOW-KEY GUEST'

It was a corner executive suite, leasing for $3,000 a month, with the plentiful natural light that was one of Tony's few special requests. The room has large windows looking out to the south and west. He could see Forest Park. There was a king-size bed, a small kitchen with granite countertops and flat-screen TVs under eight-foot ceilings.

"He was a very low-key guest," said Stacey Howlett, sales director at the Chase.

And the staff was low key about him, declining to confirm he was a guest until he was gone.

His room was down a corridor of plush brown carpet and black-and-white photographs. At the opposite end of the floor was the suite George Clooney stayed in when he was in town two years ago filming the movie "Up In The Air." Their stays overlapped by a couple of weeks. Such is the allure of Hollywood fame that several guests have requested Clooney's old room. No one has ever made a similar request for Tony's.

Tony rarely used the hidden "back of the house" elevator, the one tucked behind doors marked 'staff only." He parked his own car in the parking garage. In a rush, he called the valet.

Elzie McKinley, valet supervisor, recalled seeing Tony early on during this year's playoffs. Tony said hello to Elzie, asked him what was going on. Elzie offered a prediction that the Cardinals were going all the way.

"You think so?" Tony responded.

"I do. I got $5 on it," the valet recalled telling him.

Both men laughed.

Tony often ate at the hotel's Eau Bistro. He hosted fundraisers for his Animal Rescue Foundation in hotel ballrooms.

He liked to grab a small cafe mocha and a newspaper in the morning at the Wild Horse Creek gift shop. He had a routine, one that gift shop supervisor Emily Major quickly learned. All he had to do was ask, "Can I get one of those, Emily?" She knew what he meant. When she said, "Have a good day," he sometimes responded, "I don't care if I have a good day. I want a good night."

'LIKE FAMILY TO US'

So Emily began consulting the newspaper to see if the Cardinals had a night or day game, changing her salutation to fit.

He was nothing like she expected. The guest named Tony taught her something. "I never judge anybody from what I read, until I have my own experience," she said.

The Tony she knew was kind and, yes, a little gruff. He was familiar.

"He's like family to us," she said.

He was like family, in a city that considered him royalty, even more so after the World Series.

The staff at the Chase had no inkling Tony was retiring. He checked out as he always did when the games were over. But hotel staff is sure he will be back, to visit, like family does. And they will try to remember to call him Tony.

Writer Todd C. Frankel seeks out hidden and overlooked stories, along with a different take on what's in the news. Contact him with story ideas or suggestions.

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