'Three Nights' Peeks at Tony La Russa's CardsSt. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is considered one of baseball's top strategists — and a likely resident of baseball's Hall of Fame. Pulitzer-winning author Buzz Bissinger's new book is about three games La Russa managed in a tense pennant race.
Buzz Bissinger, left, had near-total access to Tony La Russa and his St. Louis Cardinals for a three-game series against the rival Chicago Cubs.
When Major League Baseball's season begins next week, it'll mean another chance for the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost the World Series last year. The team's manager is Tony La Russa, who has been to the Series four times and won one championship.
Inside La Russa's Strategies
Managing a team can mean forcing compromises when assigning roles to players. Tony La Russa and Buzz Bissinger elaborate:
Shaping a Team's Roster
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Pitcher Cal Eldred
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First Baseman Tino Martinez
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La Russa is considered to be among baseball's top strategists -- and a likely future resident of baseball's Hall of Fame. He has been named his league's top manager five times, and last year he moved into sixth place among managers with the most wins all-time, at 2,114. La Russa also has the distinction of being the only manager since the 1920s who is also a lawyer -- he passed the bar exam in 1979.
Those qualities and a tense battle with the Cardinals' rivals the Chicago Cubs were enough to make Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger want to write an entire book about La Russa. So for a three-game series with the Cubs in 2003, Bissinger, who previously wrote Friday Night Lights, detailed the intricate moves and counter-moves that a manager can make. He also did his best to bring out La Russa's thinking on a range of matters, from baseball's history to the death of pitcher Darryl Kile.
Excerpt: "D.K.," Chapter 12 from Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August:
Something had been bothering Darryl Kile in June 2002. He was off his stride, and La Russa knew that he was off his stride, the psychological challenges of pitching impacting the mechanics and the mechanics impacting the psychological challenges. He was working his a-- off. He always worked his a-- off.
But he was languishing at the .500 mark, the last two seasons he had gone a combined 36-20, feeling more and more like a lost horizon. Something was up, and La Russa felt that he had to take it on, fathom the inside of Darryl's head a little bit.
Darryl wanted to win as much as ever, hated it when he had taken back-to-back no-decisions against the Astros, even though he had pitched well and deep -- a no-decision, as if you hadn't even been there. But Darryl was distracted, preoccupied in a way La Russa hadn't seen before, and it worried him. A pitcher's head is far more precious than his arm and far more inscrutable. An arm could show you it was tired. It could exhibit shoulder crankiness or elbow crankiness. It could be balmed, rubbed, bandaged, iced. It could demand rest or even surgery: Stop treating me like this. But a pitcher's head wasn't always so clear. And during the two and a half years that Kile had been with the Cardinals, his head had been so focused, so absent the clouds that can cause temporary insanity in any pitcher at any time. His performance reflected it -- the ace of the staff -- so what was happening now was more than simply a blip.
He had been something of an enigma when he came over to the Cardinals in 2000 in an off-season trade with the Rockies. He had put together one spectacular year with the Astros in 1997, going 19-7. But then the Astros didn't want to pay him. So he signed with the Rockies, willing to endure the Bataan Death March of Coors Field, so littered with the skeletal psyches of pitchers who started the first and got to the fourth with the score 8–7 and men on second and third and no outs and the ball frolicking in its freedom. Because the ball carried like a space capsule in the thin air, out-fielders tended to play deep, meaning that bloopers blooped. The thin air also took some of the snap out of your curve ball, a killer 12 to 6 morphing into a very mortal 12 to 3. Sinker-ballers did okay there. So did guys who weren't afraid to live with their changeups. But Kile had a good fastball and a curve that did go 12 to 6 when it was snapping right, and this wasn't the right place for him.
He went 8 and 13 with an ERA of 6.61, four runs more than the 2.57 he had put up during that sensational year with the Astros. The Cards ended up getting him after the season, La Russa and
Duncan wondering whether that 19-and-7 season in Houston had merely been some first act with no second one but believing that there were grounds for replication.
Spring training is valuable for La Russa in assessing new pitchers; he closely observes how they respond to the absolute pull-your-hair-out tedium of it. Before the start of exhibition games, they throw only every other day, so there isn't much to do other than the same drills over and over, pick-off drills, fielding-bunt drills, hitting drills in the cage. How a new guy reacts to it -- gets after it or sloughs through it -- tells La Russa a great deal. He keenly watched Kile, trying to gauge that elusive quality called professionalism. He watched one day. He watched another. He got reports from the other coaches handling the drills, including Duncan, of course. And what he said to Duncan about Kile was crisp and pointed because he almost couldn't believe how serious Kile was about everything:
"I hope this is not a façade. I hope he's not fooling us."
Kile went 20 and 9 for the Cardinals in 2000. Along the way, working with Duncan, he developed a forkball. The more he used it, the more he seemed to like it, with its wicked downward tumble. On many days, it became an equally effective out pitch for him as his fastball and curve. In 2001, he went 16 and 11, polishing his reputation as a bulldog worker, maybe the toughest in the National
League. It marked the fourth season out of five in which he had been in the top ten in the league in innings pitched, games started, and batters faced. In fact, Kile took great pride in never having
been on the disabled list, never, a truly Herculean feat for a starting pitcher.
Kile had other qualities that marked him as far more than a power pitcher who had thrown 2321/3 innings in 2000 and 2271/3 innings in 2001 and seemed destined to do the same in 2002. He was a wonderful husband to his wife, Flynn, and she was a wonderful wife to him. They had three children together: the twins, Kannon and Sierra, who had turned five in January, and the little son, Ryker, who was less than a year old. They were a gorgeous American family, blond and floppy-haired. You looked at them and wished that everybody in the entire world, including your own family, looked that way. They stood together during picture day at Busch in a tight little rainbow, everybody holding on to one another.
There was also Kile the teammate. "Teammate" is a hackneyed term like so many terms, overused and overwrought. But it still can be beautiful, two powerful words that under the right conditions can take on even more powerful significance when merged together. A ballclub is a family, the most forced and unnatural family imaginable -- players passing through like container cargo in the continual money juggle of baseball. How it comes together or splits up, takes in its newest members or spits them out, struggles through hard times or splinters apart, is a crucial element of its success. To be successful, it must have steadying influences, particularly in the emotional trough of late June and early July, when you look around the clubhouse and see faces that maybe you already wish you didn't ever have to see again. Nerves get frayed. Egos become hypersensitive: a pitcher pissed off because he got an early hook, a batter plotting insurrection because he got pinch-hit for. Even the question of what video to slip in the clubhouse VCR in the slow hours before a game can produce a shouting match, comedy versus drama. Cliques form. An ever-widening language gap separates the Latino players, who speak mostly Spanish, and American-born players, who speak English, and the lone Japanese player, who doesn't speak either.
Kile was a great teammate, the ultimate bonding agent. He was a mentor to Rick Ankiel and Morris as they rose and struggled and struggled and rose. He gave Matheny, who caught him, a Rolex watch after he won his twentieth. He put his arm around Jason Simontacchi when he was a rookie pitcher, still dazzled by the intimidating wonder of it all, and took him out for dinner. He was always digging into his pocket and paying for meals, although just about everybody at the table made at least a million or two or three or four. Then there were the little things he did in the clubhouse, the rituals that made everyone laugh: announcing like a lighthouse foghorn three hours before game time that there were three hours to game time, singing in the summer heat that ridiculous little song about "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."
Kile was about more than comic relief, though. La Russa knew that the best clubhouses don't have a single team leader; they have a small cadre of guys you can count on to cosign what you say and convince their teammates to accept what you say, assuming, of course, that what you have said makes sense. You could not function without their support; they could empower a manager, or they could sink him by letting the inevitable disgruntlements elevate into mutinies.
Kile belonged to that cadre, a key component. It was essential for Kile to buy into what La Russa said. It was essential because of the impact that Kile had in the clubhouse, not just the presence of personality that players felt comfortable with but a competitiveness that they admired and rubbed off on them. He considered nothing in life more insulting than the intentional walk, went toe-to-toe with La Russa on several occasions because of his recalcitrance to throw one. La Russa worried that other pitchers, wanting to emulate their leader, would kick up their heels as well when the order came from the foxhole to put pride aside and simply put the damn guy on first. But La Russa had trouble getting too terribly upset with Kile, because as much as he loved talent in a player, it was the add-on of competitiveness that created the possibility of the spectacular.
Kile's influence stretched past the players to the entire extended family that also make a clubhouse different from any place on earth: the equipment managers, the attendants, the guys running the video, those who ensure order but toil in obscurity underneath the surface glamour of working for a big-league ball club. It was easy to condescend -- the upstairs-downstairs mentality, those who play and those who never will. But Kile made sure that the guys coming up never took them for granted, never acted with entitlement when their own presence here was just a matter of genes and the blessings of fortune that came and went. Because who knew what could happen? Who really knew . . . ?
La Russa simply liked talking to Kile as he made his floating rounds during spring training. He liked probing him about the Astros, because, ever since coming over to the National League in 1996, La Russa had admired how the Astros had played. He wanted to know what made their clubhouse tick, and Kile told him about the influence of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, the steady tone they set and how their steadiness spilled over onto the field. Then one day, Kile asked La Russa to name the ten people in his life who had truly put it all together: the blend of talent and heart and work ethic. The question came up in the context of an article in which La Russa had been quoted in Time on the greatness of Michael Jordan. It was a deep question, almost philosophical, a player probing beyond mechanics and the downward tumble of a forkball into something perhaps unfathomable. La Russa appreciated the depth of it. He told Kile that a question as serious as that deserved an equally serious answer, which meant that La Russa would take it and play with it in the quiet hours when men who should be sleeping are sleepless. As he mused on the question, he was struck by what it suggested about Kile, a player who knew he was on the cusp of greatness and wanted to map out the final steps.
Which is what made June 2002 so troubling. Kile had had arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder during the off-season. It had thrown a whack into his spring-training regimen, curtailing the amount of work he could put in. A lot of pitchers simply would have stayed down in Florida once the team moved north, get in four or five starts to put the wheels back in motion and then rejoin the club on May 1. But Kile didn't like the idea of putting his team in the hole like that.
"Who are you gonna pitch in my place?" he asked La Russa.
"That's not the way we look at it, Darryl. It's a six-month season. You come back May 1st ready to go, we'll still be in contention."
Kile refused the opening offered to him. He had never spent a day on the disabled list, and he wasn't about to start now. He was a starting pitcher. He was paid to start. And that's what he did right from the beginning of the season. He pitched well, incredibly well given how much of the spring he had missed. But as much as he hated to admit it, because it implied some excuse, and he was from the old-time school where any excuse was just that, he was still recovering. By the beginning of June, his record was 2 and 3, including those two no-decisions against Houston. He pitched well against Pittsburgh -- six hits in seven innings and one run -- to get to .500. Although he struggled in his next start against Kansas City, he still got the win to push up to 4 and 3. La Russa and Duncan liked the way he was coming back physically from the surgery. They were pleased with his progress. They admired his progress. He was beginning to look right. But something wasn't right inside. He was quiet. He really wasn't saying anything, no foghorn blast to the assembled three hours before game time, not even that stupid little song about snow.
"You okay?" they separately asked him.
"I'm okay. Just trying to get my stuff right."
And that's all he said. La Russa talked to Duncan about it, and Duncan thought that Kile's moody silence was simply an expression of frustration, that it was June and he wanted to be pitching great all the time and was barely over .500. La Russa let it go, but then came the Seattle game. His stuff was pretty good, but "within the ears," as La Russa described it, he simply didn't seem to be there. In the pre-game meeting, Duncan had stressed several crucial points to Kile, including not to throw anything soft and breaking to John Olerud. But during the game, Kile was doing the exact opposite of what Duncan had told him. It happened a couple of times. From the dugout, La Russa, who had sat in on the meeting, watched and thought, What the hell was that? Why did he do that?
Then Olerud came up, and Kile threw exactly what Duncan had told him not to throw, a soft breaking ball, and Olerud hit it out for a two-run homer. It was abundantly clear to La Russa that Kile's head simply wasn't into it. So in the fifth, he came out to the mound and took Kile out. Kile was surprised. He made a bid to stay, but it was too late.
"I've already signaled from the bench. I've already got a guy coming in. Give me the ball."
Kile gave him the ball, an act of surrender even more humiliating than an intentional walk. After the game, on the plane back to St. Louis, La Russa went back to talk to some of the players. He tried to make eye contact with Kile, but the pitcher turned away. La Russa let it go, because he knew that Kile was hard-wired with pride. A hook in the fifth was more than some glancing blow.
Over the next several days, La Russa and Kile continued their dance of avoidance. When the pitcher saw the manager, he went the other way. Then Duncan called La Russa and said that something was wrong with Kile.
"I tried to talk to him about a couple of things. He's not being rude. But he's not listening. He's not into it."
He simply wanted to get his pitching in, which was entirely uncharacteristic of him. "He's bothered about something," said Duncan.
There was a game against Kansas City that Sunday. La Russa waited until all the reporters had gotten their quotes and left the clubhouse. Then he tapped Kile on the shoulder and asked him to come into his office.
"Look, you get the ball Tuesday and there's an off day tomorrow," said La Russa. "For you and for us, I want to have this conversation."
Most times, La Russa would start off a conversation with a player by asking a question and listening to the player's response. But now he began differently.
"I got three things I want to say to you, and I'd like to get all three things out. Then you can say anything you want to. Or say nothing if you want to. But I'd like to say those three things." Kile
First, La Russa reaffirmed the fact that nobody believed in him more as a pitcher than La Russa and Duncan did and that nothing had happened this season, nothing, to change that. His second point had to do with why he'd hooked Kile in the fifth inning in Seattle. It wasn't to humiliate the pitcher but because of the mental mistakes Kile had made.
"As a manager, there is only one way a player and a team improves -- if something gets done wrong, you address it, unless it's a hiccup. It's common sense but it's hard to accept if you're the individual involved.
"Do you think that's a bad philosophy?" he asked rhetorically. "If it was you, would you just let mistakes happen?"
La Russa's third point, and perhaps the most important one, was to let Kile know just how important he was to the team -- a core player, a core leader -- and the responsibility that implied. "That means if you're in Seattle and something happens and you get taken out of the game, you can react however you want. This is America. You can get mad at me. You can dispute my decision. What I would challenge you to dispute is my intention to do the right thing for the team and for you. I think it's real important that you walk out of here today knowing that you're a key guy and that any decision I'm trying to make is for us and for you."
Finished with what he felt he had to say, he asked Kile for his response. "This is totally about me," said Kile. "It's not about you guys. You address things. You work on stuff. You don't ignore things."
"That means I can't ignore it when it involves you."
"I understand that."
"Well, you understand that you're a key guy?"
"Tony, this is totally about me," he repeated. "It's been really hard for me to struggle like I've been struggling."
At that moment, La Russa understood what was eating at Kile, and he respected him more than ever for it. "Darryl, do you understand how few pitchers could have gone through what you did with the arthroscopic surgery and would be determined not to miss a start?"
"I just go out there," Kile lamented. "I pitch four innings. I pitch three innings. I pitch five innings."
La Russa pulled out the legal sheet showing that Kile had also pitched six innings, seven innings, including those two no-decisions against Houston where he had worked his a-- off.
"Darryl, we still have four months to play. It's all in front of us."
"It's hard for me. It's just hard."
"Your arm strength is good. Your stamina is good. Cut yourself some slack. You've already gone through the hardest part."
"I'm bouncing back good. I feel strong. Then I get these no-decisions."
La Russa looked at him and said the only thing that was left to say, because no matter how much money you made and how much adulation you received for doing what you did, you could never hear it enough.
"We can't make it without you."
Kile pitched two days later against the Angels on a star-crossed night marked by the passing of Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck. He went seven and two-thirds innings, his longest outing of the season. He gave up six hits and one earned run. He was lights out, his best performance of the season, and the 7–2 win put the team into undisputed possession of first place. On a sad and painful evening -- because losing Buck was to St. Louis like losing the Mississippi -- Kile had been magnificent.
Five days later, in mid-June, he was set to go against the Cubs at Wrigley. Flynn Kile felt that something was amiss as she talked to her husband in those days leading up to the start in Chicago. He suddenly asked her to remarry him. He seemed overly emotional and affectionate, as if he were preparing for something, getting ready for something, even if he had no idea what it was. That Friday night, from his hotel room at the Westin off Michigan Avenue, he talked with her for an hour. He didn't want to get off the phone. She remembered him saying that: I don't want to get off. But he did because there was a game the next day, and Kile, just as he prided himself on never missing a start, also prided himself on never being late to the ballpark.
There were so many things that happened the next morning, images that could not be erased no matter how much you wanted to erase them. You could see Mike Matheny urging someone, anyone, to check on Kile's whereabouts when he still hadn't shown up in the cubbyhole of the visitor's clubhouse of Wrigley after the team bus had arrived. You could see the head of security for the Westin breaking into room 1102 after repeated phone calls had gone unanswered and finding him there, still in his bed, wearing the black eyeshades that helped him sleep, with one arm across the pillow and the other across his upper torso. You could see Barry Weinberg rushing off the field with Walt Jocketty after a phone call. You could see Buddy Bates, then the equipment manager, fall into a chair in the clubhouse and cup his head in his hands. You could see reliever Dave Veres whispering, "They found D.K. They can't wake him up," then retreat into the tiny equipment room to sob in private. You could see Matheny pleading with Bates to tell him what was wrong, asking him, Is Darryl still alive? and lifting Bates by the collar when Bates didn't know what to say because how do you say something like that until he just nodded no and Matheny pulled off his jersey because baseball simply didn't matter anymore. You could see Tony La Russa standing in the middle of a circle of players and saying softly, "They found Darryl. He's dead." You could see Joe Girardi, then playing for the Cubs, come out onto the field of Wrigley and announce to the sold-out crowd with tears in his eyes, almost unable to speak, that the game would be postponed because of "a tragedy in the Cardinals family." You could see all those things and so many more things and still not believe it: a player, a teammate, there with you the night before doing the things players do on the road -- grabbing dinner with friends at Harry Caray's, getting back to the hotel at 10:30 to call his wife, rejecting Morris's invitation shortly after midnight to have a drink in the hotel bar -- because you know what, Matty Mo, I feel a little tired. I just feel a little tired.
You could think of Darryl, the way he competed and the impatience with which he treated himself, not cutting himself any slack, because that's what quitters did and baseball had enough quitters in it already, and when you thought of Darryl, it was impossible not to think of his wife and those three beautiful children. You could grope for things to say, ways of realizing it, or somehow making it less real.
You could listen to Tony La Russa in a closed-door meeting that night on the sixteenth floor of the Westin, recounting that last conversation he'd had with Darryl, how he had told him how important he was to the team, how he had said, "We can't make it without you." And then you could listen to Dave Duncan, Duncan the Quiet Assassin, Duncan the Deacon, Duncan whose words were so sparse they were called biblical. You could see the tears well up in his eyes as he spoke about his fallen pitcher who had died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of thirty-three. You could see him stop to steady himself. And then you could listen to him in the sterile antiseptic wash of that hotel conference room when he talked about what a privilege it had been to work with Darryl Kile. You could listen to him describing how wonderful it had been to talk the bittersweet beauty of pitching with him, the timeless and impossible science of trying to figure out what precisely made it work, which was why it was always worth talking about. And you could listen to him when he said that for now and forever, he would use Darryl Kile as a model in his own life, to attain the same professional heights and more than just that because there was so much more than just that: the humanity of Darryl Kile, the exquisite humanity.
The Cardinals foundered in the immediate aftermath. There was the incomprehensible loss of Darryl Kile and beyond that, the soulsearching every player went through as they privately wondered, maybe for the first time ever, just how important baseball really was anymore. They knew that Darryl had left behind a wife and three children, and they also thought of their own families: the vulnerability of them, how everything in life could change so very much from one day to the next, there and then not there. The team was still in the thick of a race for the division, and as the manager, La Russa's mandate was to get them to compete. But he also did not want to trample on those who asked themselves, because it was worth asking themselves, why the race for the division mattered. In the week following Kile's death, the team won only two of seven games, and the atmosphere in the clubhouse was ghostly even in the rare victories, players walking in quietly and then showering and then leaving as fast as they could.
La Russa continued to search for the right thing to do. He mourned as they mourned, but he was still a manager. In the past, he had always relied on the advice of his mentors, but they were of no help now because nothing they had been through was parallel to what he and his team were going through. Then he read a column by Bernie Miklasz in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And it hit him: a way maybe, just maybe, to recapture the hearts and minds of his players back to where he felt they should be.
Several hours before the game to be played that night, he gathered the team into the eating room in the clubhouse. "We're all examining what's right in our lives and what's right for our families," he said. "We mourn Darryl and we worry about his wife and kids and it's not like you can go to the office and hide since we all compete in front of each other." He acknowledged that he wasn't sure what to do, how the coaches weren't sure what to do, how appropriate was it now to get after a player who didn't hustle, to seize on the very things that had once been so automatic before Kile's death. Then La Russa pulled out a piece of paper in which he had copied down a small portion of Miklasz's column, actually something that Kile himself had once written about the death of his own father. "This is what helps me," La Russa told his players. And while he wasn't sure it would help them, he also felt it was worth reading aloud:
"I don't think I'll ever get over it, but my father was my best friend. But in order to be a man, you got to separate your personal life from your work life. It may sound cold, but I've got work to do. I'll never forget my father, but I'm sure he'd want me to keep on working and try to do the best I can do."
The pall began to lift after La Russa read those words. A team that had stopped competing discovered that it was okay to compete again because of what their teammate was telling them: letting them know, just as he had once learned, that there was still work to do, that the very definition of a professional was to separate out the personal. Which is why, when the Cardinals went on to win 97 games and the division title that year -- when they beat Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks in back-to-back games to win the division series, when they came within a breath of going to the World Series -- it was a performance in every way remarkable for the sorrow that had been overcome, except maybe to Darryl Kile.
It would have to be enough. For every teammate who had known him, heard that silly and comforting foghorn reminding them that it was three hours before game time, watched him pitch his a-- off and argue with Matheny like a stubborn old woman to the point that Matheny would just as soon strangle him and stuff him in a box except that he loved him in the way that only a catcher can love a pitcher.
Whatever they felt and remembered would have to endure. For La Russa and Duncan. For Matheny and Williams and Bates and Veres. For Pujols and Simontacchi and Renteria. For Morris, whose locker, so stoked with the stuffing of the game it looked like Santa's sack, was just down the row from the one that was bare except for the uniform shirt hanging on the white plastic hanger, there long after the last light had been turned off and Morris and everyone else had gone home knowing, as much as they ever knew anything in life, that they would be back at it the next day three hours before game time.