"TLR: Man on a Mission" – The Chicago Years

Exclusive excerpts from Rob Rains' new book, "Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission", up through the manager's stint with the White Sox.

I recently reviewed the new Rob Rains book, "Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission". With the permission of Rains and Triumph Publishing, I will be running three articles with selected short excerpts from the book, exclusively for Scout.com subscribers.

Many of the excerpts are direct La Russa quotes. Where I added comments to provide background, they will clearly be noted as such.

The first installment covers La Russa's managerial career through his firing in Chicago in 1986.

On the Cardinals and Johnson City (winter of 1977-1978):

(Walton note: In 1977, Tony La Russa was in his final year as a player and his only year in the Cardinals minor league system, at Triple-A New Orleans. The second baseman became a player-coach and even went 3-2 as interim manager.)

The Cardinals were impressed by what they had seen of La Russa's ability to run a club. George Kissell, the organization's field coordinator, sat down with him and said he wanted to discuss his future.

There was going to be an opening for a manager at the Cardinals' rookie league club in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1978 and if La Russa was interested, the organization would be very interested in him taking the job.

La Russa listened politely, then told Kissell that while he appreciated the offer, he had put so much time into the game and to law school as well, it would not be fair to his wife for him to begin managing at such a low level in the minors. He needed a job that placed him closer to the major leagues.

(Walton note: Later that winter, La Russa was hired to manage the White Sox' Double-A club in Knoxville, TN for 1978. The club had been 37 games under .500 the previous year but improved to 49-21 in the first half of 1978 before La Russa was promoted to the major league coaching staff on July 4.)

On trying managing:

"I sat down with my wife and decided that I would try managing on a short-term basis, to see how it went," La Russa said in a 1980 interview with the New York Daily News. "I was in my thirties and I was facing a minor league manager's salary. It meant there were things we couldn't do. We couldn't travel. We couldn't buy a house. I didn't feel I had a lot of time to find out how this would go. Some guys manage in the minor years for seven years, or 10. After seven years, a lawyer is making serious money."

On being into the game:

"Another manager once told me that the first five or seven innings belong to the teams on the field, and that if the game is still close in the seventh, the last three innings are his; that's when he really gets into it. I don't agree with that. I get into it from the first to the ninth."

On discipline:

"I don't believe in organizations that build discipline by telling you how to wear your socks," La Russa said in the spring of 1980. "The way you can build discipline is by having everyone play as a pro. I won't say ‘Geez, we're not running it out to first base, so you have to cut your hair shorter.' That doesn't make sense. The public doesn't like to see rubber-stamp players, and part of our job – besides winning games – is to provide entertainment. I like guys to be individuals."

On Hal McRae (1982):

In a series against Kansas City, La Russa took exception to Hal McRae of the Royals colliding hard with second baseman Tony Bernazard. "I don't think his teammate [2B Frank White] will appreciate it when we knock him into center field, which we will do sometime in this series," La Russa said.

On hiring Dave Duncan (1983):

Duncan's relationship with La Russa went back 20 years, to their days together in the A's farm system. Duncan enjoyed more success as a major league player than La Russa, and after a 13-year career he moved into the coaching ranks with Cleveland in 1978. He was named Seattle's pitching coach in 1982, working for his friend Rene Lachemann.

After that season, La Russa came to Seattle to appear at a roast for Lachemann, who was also a former teammate and minor league roommate. Duncan and La Russa got to talking and La Russa learned that Duncan was unhappy with his contract situation. The Seattle owner refused to give Duncan a $5,000 raise, even through the Mariners' staff had led the American League in strikeouts and finished second in saves and shutouts in 1982. La Russa got on the phone with his bosses in Chicago, and in no time, Duncan was his new pitching coach.

On multi-year contracts (1984):

"Generally, multi-year contracts are not good for the game," La Russa said. "I've told players the same thing. Almost every player is better off to have a survival instinct. No matter how motivated, this survival instinct makes you play better in many cases."

(Walton note: Of course, this ignores the challenges of assembling and keeping a team together, which isn't part of La Russa's job. I couldn't help but notice that since then, Tony has signed at least seven multi-year contracts of two or three years in duration. Later, he clarifies.)

"Every manager has a one-year deal, no matter how the contract's written," he said. You're never guaranteed a spot in the dugout – only money."

On the role of a manager (1985):

"The crap a manager has to deal with today, before and after the game, takes away a lot of the enjoyment of the job…. It's more of a challenge because you have to deal with a lot of personnel problems besides just evaluating the talent on the field. You have to learn to simplify in order to succeed. You must try to control only that which is necessary to the playing of the game."

On nearing the end in Chicago (early 1986):

(Walton note: Long time Sox GM Roland Hemond had been axed and broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson was installed to replace him. While Harrelson was not as anti-La Russa as previous broadcasters Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall, it was not smooth sailing. For example, Harrelson made changes to the coaching staff and La Russa had to argue hard to save Duncan's job.)

"All winter, I heard about the arguments people expect Hawk and I to have," La Russa said. "I don't expect big arguments and I'd be surprised if Hawk did. A few disagreements perhaps, but that is healthy.

"Everyone thinks that will all these people here" – referring to special assistants and coaches hired by Harrelson – "we're going to make decisions by committee. Not true. There will be discussions by committee, not decisions. The final decisions will be mine and mine alone."

On the end in Chicago:

(Walton note: With the 1986 Sox carrying a 26-38 record, Harrelson fired La Russa and Duncan on June 20, 1986. Harrelson lasted until October, when he was canned, too.)

From Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: "I should never have allowed Tony to be fired. I've often said that was the biggest mistake I've ever made. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was a mistake. And I let it happen anyway."

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at his blog, The Cardinal Nation.

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