MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. "One Last Strike" is Tony La Russa's memoir of the 2011 Major League Baseball season and in passing, a memoir of his very successful career as a big league manager. Last season, La Russa led the St. Louis Cardinals out of nowhere, to win the National League wildcard slot; and to then improbably advance to the League Championship Series and the World Series, where they won it all in what was one of the great World Series of all time.
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JOE BUCK: In the air to left, well hit. Back is Craig. What a team.
BUCK: What a ride. The Cardinals are world champs in 2011.
SIEGEL: Tony La Russa managed St. Louis for 16 seasons. Before that were 10 seasons managing the Oakland A's; seven seasons managing the Chicago White Sox; and before that, a less-than-illustrious career as an infielder. Last year's season was his last. He's now retired, and he's with us today. Welcome to the program.
TONY LA RUSSA: Well, thank you, Robert, and I appreciate the compliment of less than illustrious. It was really lousy.
SIEGEL: How much do you miss managing this year?
LA RUSSA: Interestingly, especially to my friends, I do not miss it at all - in the sense of being in the dugout. What I do miss is being involved in the competition. As a player and as a manager, 50 years of waking up in the morning, during the season, and expecting to have an outcome - win or lose - that night. I do miss that competition, but not the dugout.
SIEGEL: You know, in reading your story about your career, and the players you've managed, I was struck - very often - by this: You were, as you say, less than illustrious is - you would be tougher on yourself, your Major League playing record; your partner, the great pitching coach Dave Duncan, was a Major League catcher but kind of a journeyman Major League catcher; Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players in the game, whom you managed, was not among the first 400 players drafted in his year. Why is it so difficult to forecast success in Major League Baseball, at so many different levels?
LA RUSSA: I think, you know, the idea of evaluating a high school player, especially, and then trying to look forward and figure his development, there are certain criteria that you look, to give you an idea; but everybody had signs, has a level of talent. Some are very talented; some are much less talented. But the successful producers in Major League Baseball - probably, in sports - they have a competitive, physical and mental toughness. And players that get into the competition, are not distracted by fame and fortune and have the toughness to deal with all the ups and downs, and the challenges - they are worth more than their weight in gold.
SIEGEL: Steroids; you managed before, during and - we think - after the steroid era in Major League Baseball. You managed Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the A's and later, McGwire with the Cardinals as well. They both later admitted using steroids, and McGwire's admission was a pretty heartbreaking apology. What should baseball's attitude be toward him, and toward his records?
LA RUSSA: Well, I think the simple answer, Robert, is if it's to him, treat him like you would treat everybody else. I really have no real idea how it's going to be reconciled, whether it's in the record books. I just think as far as the players are concerned, treat them all the same.
SIEGEL: Well, should McGwire be admitted to the Hall of Fame, for example?
LA RUSSA: Well, if he's not because he used, then don't put anybody in. There's a lot of guys out there, and there are only a few poster boys that are being singled out. I don't think that's fair. Either punish all of them, or punish none of them; and put an asterisk next to that embarrassing time.
SIEGEL: You write a lot about your approach to managing, which you call personalizing; and also about the senior players, the leaders on the team. You actually engage in leadership formally. You make them co-signers to the team's aims. I'm curious - in retrospect, do you think that if you'd personalized more, you might have found out more of what was going on with performance-enhancing drugs; or might the co-signers, in those days, have done some enforcement - or would that have been pointless?
LA RUSSA: Terrific question. It's, you know, as for any really good question, it's not - there's no quick and easy answer. But one of them, for example, there did originate the concept of workouts - legal and proper workouts, to enhance your stamina and strength. I know that our official program, there was no messing around; no illegalities. Now, what happened away from it - so there were signs, by the way, though, Robert. We could see, for example, if someone was getting stronger without working as hard, or got strong quickly. And you started to suspect that there were other things involved. As you raised the issue, or you pushed it up the levels of the organization, there were obstacles. And I think, probably, MLB was having a tough time understanding what was going on. But you couldn't test. The union would argue for right of privacy and - collective-bargaining obstacles. So, you know, there's only so much at that point. You know, I hate making excuses because I'm just offering you an explanation...
SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah.
LA RUSSA: ...but we did observe, and we did question.
SIEGEL: At the end of last season, the great Saint Louis Cardinal first baseman Albert Pujols, free agent; moves, and joins the Anaheim Angels. They've been actively acquiring terrific free-agent pitchers. They come up with the greatest rookie anyone has seen in years - Mike Trout. You'd think that all of that would put the Angels at the top of their division and a lock for postseason; doesn't happen. What's going on?
LA RUSSA: You know, they had a pot of gold in a TV contract that allowed them to really go out and spend, and they already had a team. But the story in the West is the upstart Oakland A's...
LA RUSSA: ...who - I think their payroll is like, 50 million - maybe 100 million - less than the Angels, and the Rangers. If you draft smartly and develop the young guys, they play with enthusiasm. You don't have the ups and downs of - and distractions, that some of the older guys have. They stay healthier. Also, when you introduce new teammates - happened to the - look at the Dodgers. They made the trade; they looked so much better on paper. They haven't really had the record to support it because they're not quite a team. They haven't gelled. It's a thing we talk in the book - a lot - about; that's chemistry that comes from teammates respecting and trusting and caring for each other. You just can't make it automatic and - press a button.
SIEGEL: You had an explanation for Pujols' terrible start this year - that he was unhappy. He was away from his family.
LA RUSSA: You can't computerize that. I mean, that's human nature. His wife was pregnant with her fifth child, which she just delivered here, two or three weeks ago. He had a lot on his plate. He tried to do too much. And in fact, when I talked to him, I reminded him that the year before, he got off to a slow start and then tried to force things; and Mark McGwire - our hitting coach - reminded him, just take what's there. And pretty soon, the real Albert emerged, and it has emerged this season.
SIEGEL: By the way, I'll just leave people with the thought - speaking of unhappiness; of being on the road, away from your family; you make a wonderful admission, in the book, that your daughters - after your lifetime being on the road for eight months out of the year, your daughters send your wife a Father's Day card every year, I gather.
LA RUSSA: Yeah. You know, it's - they're laughing and - but I'm not, you know, because - they have forgiven me for my excessive concentration and distractions, but I haven't forgiven myself. I should have stayed at home a little longer, and come home sooner. And when I was home, I should have paid more attention to them and - you know, I was taught this leadership philosophy of "no regrets." It pains me to have regrets that I didn't pay more attention to the family than I did.
SIEGEL: Tony La Russa, thanks for talking with us today.
LA RUSSA: Well, Robert, it's been my pleasure. And this is a great show and station, and I appreciate the chance to be a part of it.
SIEGEL: Tony La Russa's book is called "One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season." He joined us from member station KWMU in St. Louis.
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