Fierce competitor La Russa goes out on top

October 31, 2011, 3:42 pm
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Somehow, you could have guessed Tony La Russa wasnt going out unless he could go out looking down at the field he had just laid waste to one last time.La Russa, who announced his retirement this morning three days after cheating the experts one last time by winning the World Series, always had a competitive streak that Attila the Hun would find off-putting. His stock answer to the mindless greeting, How are you doing? was Ill tell you in three hours, and he meant it. The game would dictate his mood.
And the game would dictate his moves. He was among the first of the statistical managers, but he had a fierce sense of his own madcap genius. He did things his way and did so with something of a vengeance, to the point where the new-age baseball analysts often found him not only imperious, arrogant and frustrating, but even retrograde in his strategies.To which he revealed his truest self that of the unrepentant red-ass.La Russa was caricatured a lot of ways in his 30 years of managing, but the one that got the least attention was his frustration with things that didnt go his way. He was generous with his time, and he loved talking about baseball, but his questioners needed, in the words of the mob movies, to come heavy or not come at all. He wanted your preparation along with his preparation, and he wanted you to acknowledge that your preparation was inferior to his. Not necessarily because he was smarter, but because he spent more time at it.As in most of his waking hours.It is instructive that he found kinships with other authoritarians of his day George Will was his Boswell, Bob Knight was his spring training companion. He brooked little argument unless it was (a) well-prepared and (b) had the predetermined result that he would be right and you would be wrong. Not because he was a genius, but because hed worked at the problem longer than you. Youd slept; he hadnt.The day that may have revealed this trait loudest was the day the Texas Rangers came to the Coliseum for the first time since Jose Canseco was pulled from the on-deck circle and told he was no longer and Oakland Athletic. He and La Russa had been butting heads awhile, and when push came to shove off, La Russa won, as he knew he would. Canseco burned the available bridges he had, but La Russa would get the last word because he knew he would.And he prepared for it. He was at the ballpark early, and feverishly wrote out a detailed rebuttal to Cansecos remarks, his work ethic and general Canseco-ness, and he studied it so that he could deliver it for as long as he wished. And he went a good half-hour rhetorically blowing Canseco into small bits.When it was done, he turned to a reporter and said, How did it sound? He wanted to know the job had been done right. His way, his words, but with the acknowledgement that nobody else could have done better.La Russa was not a Zen creature. He and Jim Leyland, one of his best friends in baseball, both had fracases with their best players, and both won. They didnt let small issues become big ones and on the occasions that they did, they dealt with the problem with lineup cards and general managers moving the problems elsewhere.And he especially would not go out except on his own terms. He was ferocious in that he might not win, but he would lose his way. Indeed, his odd explanation for BullpenPhonePalooza after Game 5 was so bad that he felt compelled to recraft it the day after and acknowledge what he knew he should have right after the game. He was in charge, it was on his watch, and there was more he should have done to prevent and correct the problem.He was capable of charm, but it was leavened with stubbornness. He didnt conquer St. Louis, one of the most traditional and hidebound and yet devout baseball markets there is, so much as he grappled with it. He had been the second banana in a big market (Chicago), the first banana in a slightly smaller market (Oakland), and he took on the beast from its belly. St. Louis is as hard a ball town as Boston, and its love for the Cardinals has its jagged edges. La Russa didnt avoid those edges he scraped against them and created new ones, all in pursuit of the next three hours.He crafted his legacy elbows-out, leaving as many detractors as admirers. As a manager, the numbers didnt lie, but his methodology took regular beatings. As a human being, well, baseball was his one true love. If he could stay, he would.But nobody stays. They all go eventually, and he went out the only way he would allow himself to having whipped everyone in his teams path. You may decide for yourselves whether that is an admirable trait, but he admires the hell out of it. He did not leave the job undone. He doesnt have to wait for the next three hours to tell you hows hes doing. He has one more ring. The newest one.And hell be a lousy retiree. Bet on that.Ray Ratto is a columnist for