Goodbye, Tony

Tony La Russa will be remembered for a lot of different things by a lot of different people. The man spent the better part of four decades in the Major Leagues, some as a below-average bench player, most as a Hall of Fame manager. The man won three World Series championships, becoming the second manager in history to win a title in both leagues. He won more than 27-hundred games, defended his players, and coached his players to play the right way: The Cardinal way.

I remember when Tony La Russa came to St. Louis in November of 1995. I was 10 years old, and had always liked playing and watching baseball. Growing up in St. Louis, the Cardinals were my favorite team. But I had never experienced “winning” baseball… frankly, I didn’t even really know or appreciate what it was. I remembered watching the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series just a month earlier at my grandpa’s house, but that was really my only real “clue” to what winning was all about. In 1994, there was no World Series due to the strike, and in 1993 my 8-year-old self was not aware of Joe Carter and his walk-off heroics in the World Series. The Cardinals hadn’t been to the playoffs since I was two-years-old (1987) so I was really kept in the dark on the whole “winning” thing.

But then came the Spring of ’96. The Cardinals’ slogan for the year was “Baseball Like it ‘Oughta Be.” I vividly remember a full-page ad the Cardinals’ new ownership took out in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that year, namely because my grandpa cut it out and hung it up on the wall on his basement. Now, many of the phrases escape my memory, but I do remember this much about that nearly-poetic advertisement were:

“It oughta be real grass. It oughta be outfielders diving for a dying quail. It oughta be 2 bucks for a kid. It oughta be something to talk about with your girlfriend’s dad. It oughta be fun. Baseball like it oughta be.”

And how fitting that slogan was.

Tony La Russa embodied that motto for 16 seasons in St. Louis. He wasn’t perfect, but he always tried to have his players play the game the right way. “Play a hard nine” was among the manager’s personal mottos.

And with La Russa in charge, I got my first taste of winning baseball in St. Louis. The 1996 Cardinals went 88-74, good enough for first place in the NL Central Division and a trip to the playoffs. I remember watching rightfielder Brian Jordan squeeze the final out that clinched the division, and the celebration was on. The Cardinals dispatched the San Diego Padres in 3 games in the NLDS, and came within one game of a trip to the World Series, falling to the Atlanta Braves 4 games to 3. But despite the loss, it became official: I went from “liking” baseball to full-blown obsessed with it… and Tony La Russa was a big part of that. He was a huge part of bringing exciting, winning baseball back to millions of Cardinals fans, and sucked in new, younger fans like myself.

When I reached my teenage years, I remember going to a father-son banquet put on by my high school. Tony La Russa was the special guest speaker. Though I was completely tuned in, I don’t remember too many specifics from that speech… only that TLR could moonlight as a comedian if he wanted to. He was funny, charismatic, engaging, and classy.

In college, I got a chance to interview Tony La Russa when the St. Louis Cardinals came to Springfield, Missouri for a pair of exhibition games at Hammons Field, home of the Double-A affiliate Springfield Cardinals (by the way, on that Springfield team were guys you may have heard of: Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Jaime Garcia, Daniel Descalso, Fernado Salas, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte. No wonder Springfield took Game 2 by a score of 10-3). At the time, I was working for the local NPR affiliate as a student reporter, and pleaded with the news director to let me cover the games. National Public Radio and its affiliates are not exactly known for their hard-hitting sports coverage and analysis, so I pitched a story idea about Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation. My news director bit and I was off to the ballpark for two days of Cardinals baseball.

Most of the reporters around were hamming Tony with questions about the team’s perceived weaknesses, their failures in 2007 (which turned out to be the ONLY losing season the Cardinals had in Tony’s final 12 years with the club), and other baseball-related issues. As we know, TLR can get a little testy at times, but when the dust settled and the other reporters left one-by-one, there I was: a giddy little Cardinals fan of 11 years meeting the man who changed everything about the way I viewed baseball in the form of a wet-behind-the-ears 20-something college reporter. I asked Tony about his Animal Relief Foundation, and he lit up. Tony has a major soft spot in his heart for animals. Here’s a portion of what I wrote back in 2008:

“St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa spends over 7 months on a baseball diamond every year, so it’s no surprise that his other passion, the Animal Rescue Foundation, began on the baseball diamond as well. During a game in 1990 while coaching for the Oakland Athletics, a stray cat ran onto the field. After a few minutes, La Russa coaxed the cat into the dugout and kept it there the rest of the game. La Russa says it didn’t take long for him to realize there weren’t any no-kill animal shelters in the bay area. So he co-founded the Animal Rescue Foundation, which saves animals who have run out of time at shelters and would otherwise be euthanized.”

Tony was very gracious and patient with me, and I had the memory of a lifetime.

It is now November of 2011, nearly 16 full years to the day when Tony took over as the Cardinals manager. For Cardinals fans under 30, we literally know nothing other than the Tony La Russa brand of Cardinals baseball. Was he or his brand of baseball perfect? No. I’m sure many older fans reading this miss seeing a little thing they like to call a “stolen base” (whatever that is), and in fact, one of the first articles I ever wrote for this website was on a litany of mistakes La Russa made in one game during the 2010 season: a 20 inning, 2-1 loss to the New York Mets. It was a game that saw pitchers hitting cleanup behind Albert Pujols TWICE in extra innings, and position players throwing 3 innings of relief in the latter stages of the game, all because Tony mismanaged his bullpen and bench. I titled that article “The Most Memorable Game of 2010.” (I think we all know what the most memorable game of 2011 was: the 11-inning thriller that was Game 6 of the World Series).

Tony La Russa will be remembered for many things: batting the pitcher 8th, using his bench players and bullpen like coins at an arcade, his outrageous tirades at postgame news conferences, his toughness on rookies, his loyalty towards his veterans, his 6 pennants, 3 World Series titles, and more than 27-hundred victories that will most surely guarantee that he’ll soon be entering Cooperstown and no one other player or coach will ever wear the number 10 in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform again.

But what I’ll remember Tony La Russa for is the face of Cardinals baseball during my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Other than radio broadcaster, Mike Shannon, no one in the Cardinals organization was around longer than Tony La Russa over the past 16 years. I’ll remember that my grandpa used to call him Tony “La Russo.” I’ll remember that some of his decisions used to drive me crazy, and I’ll remember that it sure was fun to watch his teams get after it.

Thank you, Tony, for bringing back that hard-nosed winning tradition to St. Louis. Thanks for leading us into the playoffs nine times in 16 seasons. Thanks for the two unforgettable World Series championships.

Thanks for giving us baseball like it oughta be.

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