RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Tony La Russa goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. He's one of the most successful managers in baseball history. The won the World Series with the Oakland A's once and then two more times with the St. Louis Cardinals. So he has a lot of experience with winning
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
But he says some of his best lessons came when he was not. We talked with La Russa this week, and he recalled his playing career - mostly in the minor leagues - often plagued with injuries. And he especially recalled other managers who taught him how to make decisions.
TONY LA RUSSA: You know, managers can be notoriously defensive when they're asked questions about why they did this and the consequences. You know, it's like second-guessing.
INSKEEP: But many years ago, a minor league manager named Loren Babe was willing to take young La Russa's questions. La Russa recalled the day his mentor ignored an old baseball rule. He earned La Russa's respect even though that decision did not work. Here's the rule - if you're winning the game and a right-handed batter is up at the plate, you are supposed to move your players to protect the third base line. You don't want the batter slamming a big hit down that left side of the field.
LA RUSSA: And there was a game where we had a one run lead, and Loren had his third baseman over in his normal position, and a ball went down the line. So, you know, I said, why didn't you protect the line? And so he explained to me well, the pitcher that we had was - had really good stuff and was throwing a right-hand hitter hard away. But the hitter that was at-bat had the great, great majority of his hits were from left-center to right field, so why protect the line? When he explained that, it made total sense. If you figure one thing is your best chance to win, trust your gut, you don't cover your butt.
INSKEEP: Can I just ask because you're being inducted into Hall of Fame at the same time as Bobby Cox and Joe Torre - if you think about the three of you, you've won a lot of games. Do you have anything in common?
LA RUSSA: Yes, I think we have several things in common. Our style was very relationship-driven, very hands on, earning respect and trust and showing players you cared for them. But you also, you know, you had to pop them in the butt once in a while. But I'm proud to say that I had wonderful relationships with a great, great majority of our players and coaches.
INSKEEP: When you say relationship-driven, would you explain that a little more? Because I'm thinking there's a lot of people who are coaches or managers or managers in other fields of life who might be interested in how you tried to deal with the personalities on teams like you had.
LA RUSSA: I think the best way to explain it is the most straightforward. And that is we had a responsibility to each year, starting at zero, earn the respect and trust of our players. You know, you're honest 'cause that's how they trust you. You have helpful things to say - that's how they respect you. And when you care for them, you know, you care for what's happening with their families and their private life to the extent that they open the door. But you care about what's happening with them as a teammate. And then, by the way, that's what they're expected to do with each other. You know, ever since I managed with guaranteed contracts and all the media, you know, you can get distracted by fame and fortune. Your values can get distorted. And the way you breakthrough is you just keep it personal and keep it simple and basic.
INSKEEP: You know, there's one other thing I need to ask about because you're being inducted into the Hall of Fame, and there are some great players who played for you who were not there because they were, at some point, later linked with steroids. Mark McGwire comes to mind. We could go through a few. As time passes, do think that some of those players deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
LA RUSSA: That's a hellacious question. I believe that that is - like most really good questions, there is no easy answer. And that's what, nowadays, people are looking for the easy, quick, 30 seconds on it. I think an important part is just to acknowledge, you know, what it was that happened wrong there. By the way, that story is not nearly as easy to explain as people would think. I mean, we really started weight training and using supplements like creatine - it's still legal. And all of a sudden, then it got away from us. Baseball is still not sure how to explain that, you know, that 10 or 12 year period from sometime in the '90s to early 2000. All I say is treat everybody the same, you know, just don't create some poster boys which is what's happening now. There's three or four guys like, you know, McGwire, Clemens and Bonds and they're going to be circled as - but there are other guys that - everybody should be treated the same. And, you know, my faith in baseball is without restraints and I just feel like at some point we'll figure out the appropriate way to historically make that reference and go on from there.
INSKEEP: Now I want you to have the time to explain some of those nuances. You are saying that you think baseball, as a sport, started on kind of reasonable, legal footing and things just kind of edged over the line rather than there being some mass decision about it. It just happened. Is that what you're saying?
LA RUSSA: What I'm saying is that in all competitive sports, people are always looking at the edge. They're always trying to push, push, push. And normally it's just breaking a rule. In this case, as guys got stronger, that natural bent to try to get an edge drifted over into illegal performance enhancers. But that's why you have to monitor, you have to watch because there's an inclination to try to get an edge. And if that edge goes over the line - just breaking a rule - then you should be punished. If it breaks the law, then that's much more serious.
INSKEEP: How would you find that way to recognize some of those players you feel are poster children like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds? It seems, as an outsider, that there's two choices - either they get in the Hall of Fame or they don't. Is there some other option?
LA RUSSA: The only thought I have is that you acknowledge that there's that one period, that there's a lot of questions not just about the poster boys but about other guys. And, you know, if you had Hall of Fame credentials then, if you get in, there's an asterisk on your plaque that says look, we have a question. Whatever that change is going to be, I just have confidence in the people in baseball, whether it's Major League Baseball or the Players Association, they'll do right by whatever the history. You got to acknowledge what you did wrong, and then see if you can fix it to the extent possible, and turn the page.
INSKEEP: Listening to you carefully, I'm wondering if you're suggesting to us that someone like Mark McGwire really ought to be in the Hall of Fame someday.
LA RUSSA: Well, that's probably exactly what I'm suggesting.
INSKEEP: Well, Tony La Russa, thanks very much.
LA RUSSA: All right. I enjoyed it, Steve, as always.
INSKEEP: He's one of six men who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend at Cooperstown, New York. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.
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