Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How far he’s come

I couldn’t get away from the image of Tony LaRussa on Monday. Everywhere I looked, he says he’s retiring from professional baseball.

He doesn’t want to return as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He figures that after parts of six decades as a player and manager, being able to say he won a World Series is the perfect way for it all to end.

HE MAY WELL be right. Although I’m convinced his “retirement” is about as legitimate as those of Ryne Sandberg or Michael Jordan – although he may well be telling the truth that he won’t be field manager of the Cardinals any more.

But for those people who engage in conspiracy theories that have LaRussa returning to the Chicago White Sox in some sort of front-office role (possibly as some sort of vague-titled adviser to team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf), I can only think of the words of Chico Escuela whenever sports other than beisbol came up.

“I don’t know.”

But what I do know is that watching LaRussa leave on top – with sports reports citing the fact that all he’d need to do is manage a team to 35 more victories (about half the total the Cubs usually win in a single season) and he’d be able to say that his major league managerial record surpassed that of the great New York Giants manager John McGraw – just makes it all the more humorous to me how far down he once was on the baseball totem pole.

THE ULTIMATE FAILURE. A ballplayer whose skills might have been good enough for occasional stints with the Kansas City Athletics and Chicago Cubs, but whose real level of talent was to be a regular for ball clubs like the Denver Bears, the New Orleans Pelicans or the Iowa Oaks (none of which exist any longer).

A career “minor leaguer” who may well have gotten the White Sox managerial job in 1979 (replacing player/manager Don Kessinger) because then-owner Bill Veeck thought he was someone who would do what he was told and wouldn’t get in the way of Veeck’s promotional schemes.

A man who was so anonymous that he once appeared on a late 1970s attempt to reincarnate the “To Tell the Truth” television game show – and nobody had a clue who he was!

I still remember watching that program when it aired – only by pure chance. I had just finished some high school homework and was flipping around the pre-cable TV dial when I stumbled onto the start of the show.

WATCHING ACTOR NIPSEY Russell’s alleged “gotcha” moment, thinking he had caught one of the people in a lie because “they don’t play night games” in Chicago made me laugh – what a buffoon, getting the city’s two ball clubs confused.

And being able to use the Internet to find a video clip of that show made me laugh when listening to LaRussa explain at the end that his law school degree had nothing to do with baseball, but gave him a “cushion” to fall back on in the event he got fired as manager.

Of course, as we all know now, LaRussa never did fall back on practicing law for a living.

He did eventually get fired by the White Sox in 1986 (as all managers eventually do). There are those who will forevermore condemn Ken Harrelson’s one year as team general manager because he was the one who replaced LaRussa (although there are other White Sox fans who will be forevermore grateful that their favorite team got rid of the arrogant bum).

WHICH SET THE stage for him to lead those Oakland Athletics ballclubs that won three straight American League championships (along with the “Earthquake” World Series of 1989), then go on to the St. Louis Cardinals – when he was in charge when Mark McGwire hit all those home runs, then won three National League championships in the past decade.

Along with two World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 – the latter of which he wants to be his “last hurrah” in baseball.

Quite a ways ahead of that day some three decades ago when LaRussa had to answer with a straight face from actress Kitty Carlisle if he was allowed to “spank” ballplayers as a way of disciplining them.

For the record, the LaRussa method of ballplayer discipline was, “You can talk to them. You can take their money.”

IN SHORT, THIS television appearance was one that has repeatedly popped into my head throughout the years – just about every single time that someone went on a diatribe about what a baseball “genius” this LaRussa guy was.

I remember him when he was a nothing just thankful to be sticking around in baseball – rather than actually having to use the knowledge obtained from that law degree.

Then again, this “nothing” was the manager of the first Chicago ballclub that ever finished a regular season in first place and went on to the playoffs. You have to go back to the pre-playoff old days to find Chicago pennant winners – except for Ozzie Guillen and 2005.

So let’s hear it for LaRussa. Now, we can begin the speculation about what does he really mean by “retire.” And will Chicago have a place in his post-managerial baseball career?


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