Former White Sox manager and three-time World Series Champion Tony La Russa joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to talk about his life, career and new book: One Last Strike. Read an excerpt from his book and watch a web-exclusive conversation with La Russa below.
For a game that is only one-162th of a season, opening day gets an inordinate amount of attention. That doesn’t just come from fans and the media—the players feel it too. Your home opener is a big deal, and 2011 was no different. Any time you line up along the baselines, anytime the club brings out some of its stars from the past, and, in St. Louis, anytime the majestic Clydesdale horses take their ceremonial lap around the field, the atmosphere before the game becomes magical. You want to savor opening day, but you also need to get through it and over it so that you can get into the flow of the season. Still, opening day is an important touchstone: it gives you a chance to enjoy the game and to recognize your good fortune to be a part of it. You feel almost overwhelmed with a sense of anticipation and arrival.
As I walked through the clubhouse a few hours before game time, I stopped to have brief chats with a few of the guys. I could see from their eyes that they were into it. Berkman was clearly carrying his attitude from spring training into the regular season. Gerald Laird, a catcher, was another guy with a terrific sense of humor and a real passion for and knowledge of the game. Skip Schumaker, our second baseman, was as tough as nails and always worked his tail off. David Freese was a great story and a great individual—a guy who once gave up the game completely but was now on the verge of being one of its real stars. He had gone through a rough patch in his life and had injured his ankles in a car accident, so we had to be careful with him, monitoring him regularly and resting him when needed. He had worked harder than ever in the off-season and felt he was back on track and getting healthier.
He and Allen Craig were a lot alike offensively and temperamentally. Both were hard-nosed guys who were going to battle in every at-bat, and both had the added value of having the knack of producing in rally situations. Ryan Theriot was another gamer, a gritty player with a championship pedigree, having played on LSU’s national championship squad while in college. He and Schumaker, our middle-infield double-play combination, spent a lot of time working together and became good friends. At one point they started buying each other gag gifts—snow globes, the tackier the better—from each of the cities we went to on the road. That’s a part of good team chemistry—having guys who appreciate one another and who also give each other a lot of crap. Nothing is sacred, and no one’s ego is immune from the barbs that are exchanged between teammates throughout a season.
Chris Carpenter was our starter for that first game. We’d originally had conversations about making Adam Wainwright the opening day starter in 2011 in recognition of his having won twenty games for us in 2010. I’d been leaning toward Carp for the opener. The matchups seemed better that way. Carp’s response at that time had been to say that he felt—and Dunc agreed—that Wainwright had earned the opening day honor. This was a classic example of Carp being not only the number-one starter but also a true leader and teammate.
On opening day Albert Pujols was his usual quietly intense self. The man knows how to prepare, and because of his unique position in the game as one of the most sought-after interviews, he has to isolate himself a bit from the press in order to keep his intense focus. No one I’ve seen went about getting ready any better than Albert. That’s not to say that he’s not a great teammate—he’ll always join in a conversation or a verbal dog pile when a guy is catching grief from his teammates for whatever reason—but he’s got this no-nonsense look about him when it’s time to go to “the Dungeon” for a video study session.
Some of Albert’s conscientiousness might spring from the fact that he was a thirteenth-round draft choice, the 402nd player overall. From the beginning, scouts expressed some concern about his build. He played shortstop in high school, which gives you some idea of his agility, but as he matured questions were raised about his range and quickness. I first heard about him in the off-season between the 1999 and 2000 campaigns. At our organizational meetings in Florida, the site also of our winter instructional league, we went over the players who had been recently drafted and were now in the system, and the staff highlighted the players who had made a special impression. Albert was the first player mentioned. After watching his first game, I remember thinking only that he seemed to carry himself well.
In his first year in the minors, Albert was with the Cardinals’ low A team in Peoria. Fortunately for him and for us, Dave Duncan’s son Chris was also on that team. In talking with his dad regularly to let him know how things were going, he mentioned Albert and Yadier Molina a few times, always saying something glowing about him. Because of that, Albert was on our radar.
In 2000 we were putting together a good season, closing in on a division win. When September call-ups rolled around, we brought up a few guys from AAA in Memphis. As a result, there were a few slots that needed to be filled at that level. The Memphis team had also had a good year and earned a playoff spot. Our organization was always keen on recognizing success at every level and would reward their efforts by promoting from the lower clubs to give them their best competitive chance. Albert became one of those late-season callups to AAA straight from A ball, and he did well, hitting a home run in the thirteenth inning of the game that got Memphis the Pacific Coast League Championship. Later that fall he was in the Arizona Fall League, where I saw him bat three times and I liked what I saw.
Based on his impressive first full year, Albert was invited to our major league spring training camp in 2001. Our intention was to provide him with some exposure to major league techniques, practices, teammates, and game experience, since it’s an ideal method for preparing a top prospect for his minor league season. His work was immediately impressive in the early drills, in all phases. One of the subtleties of training camp is that, on almost a daily basis, you can increase the challenges for the players, especially the younger prospects, through various drills, such as batting drills. When I saw that Albert was hitting well, I started putting him in hitting groups with our frontline players, just to see how he handled himself. The same result. In fact, it was difficult to see any difference between Albert and our top guys. Some younger guys either try to do too much to impress or prove they belong; others get intimidated. Albert did neither; he just impressively went to work.
We threw many tests like that at Albert, and he passed every one with flying colors. Very quickly he became the talk of our camp at daily staff meetings. The evaluations were so glowing that everyone, including groups of scouts and instructors, started gravitating to Albert’s work area to really scrutinize him. The discussions within the organization that spring reminded me of those that the White Sox had about Harold Baines; the A’s about Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss, Terry Steinbach, and Jason Giambi; and the Cardinals in earlier years about Brian Jordan and J. D. Drew. Impact players (or pitchers) developed within your system can stoke dreams of championships to come.
At that point, practice was important, but taking it into the games was the litmus test. When the games began, we saw exactly the same kind of outstanding overall play by Albert. Normally, when a young player has a spring like this, you try to give him just enough opportunity to maintain his belief in himself and to send him to the minor leagues full of confidence, but in the middle of the exhibition schedule we started seriously thinking about putting Albert on our 2001 roster. His playing time was becoming an issue because those who were sure to be major leaguers needed to start playing more. Fortunately, Gaylen Pitts, the Memphis manager from 2000, recommended playing him in left field so that he could still get at-bats. As Gaylen said, Albert got an excellent jump on fly balls and ran better than most thought.
He seemed too good to be true. Paul Richards, one of my baseball mentors, had always warned me not to fall in or out of love with a player during spring training. The idea was to wait as long as possible before taking the plunge or taking a hike. So I increased the pressure assignments. I challenged Albert more than any young player I had ever coached. A key fact was that we were coming off a Division Championship and felt we could win again. The challenges I gave Albert were tough enough that some of our staff and veteran players felt I was looking to make him fail to justify sending him out.
Here’s a good example: Later that spring we were scheduled to face Javier Vazquez of the Expos, a guy with nasty stuff. I put Albert in the cleanup spot to see what he would do. First time up, he flails at a Vazquez slider well off the plate—looking just terrible—and I think, Aha. Got you. In my mind, Albert needs some additional seasoning, he has to work on that small thing—seeing the ball and being better disciplined at the plate. Next time up, Vazquez throws him that same slider and Albert hits a bullet to right-center. I think, Holy crap, what an adjustment. Making an adjustment is not something you see in many hitters, let alone younger ones. Even hitting cleanup didn’t bother him.
Now, according to the legend Bobby Bonilla, who’d been signed that season to be our veteran switch-hitter to play first, third, and outfield and come off the bench, he hurt his hamstring, thereby supposedly creating a spot for Albert. But in reality, we had already decided that if I could find him enough playing time where he wouldn’t just be a bench player, Albert was going to make the team. Originally, we were going to figure out how to do that with Bobby on the roster too, but when he got injured, the question became academic.
The record book shows that not only did Albert earn playing time (156 games played—52 at third base, 37 in left field, 33 in right field, 32 at first base, and twice at DH), but he also earned the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
And it had been that way ever since. If Albert was physically ready to go, then I was penciling in his name on the lineup card, and being able to do so on April 2, 2011, gave me a good feeling. For the past decade-plus, Albert had been a kind of sun around which so much of the team orbited. And just as you can count on the sun to rise each morning, Albert might dim for a bit now and then, but he’d always be back again shining brightly.
If spring training is all about promise, then opening day is about promise fulfilled or unfulfilled. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say to the club during our opening day meeting. I wanted to set the right tone, get the guys in the proper frame of mind. The meeting always takes place the day before the opener. On game day the players need to be totally focused on getting off to a good start. The idea is to talk the day before, then start the action on game day. Since we were opening in St. Louis, the meeting’s venue was our clubhouse dining area. It’s big enough for the team to fit comfortably and small enough to feel intimate. More important, the room was filled with memories and reminders of years of winning game celebrations, sending the message that competing is fun but having the final score go your way is true joy.
Over the years I had painfully learned that ten minutes tops is as long as this session should go. A meeting that goes longer than that becomes less effective. Coming off spring training, I devoted my first comments to a quick review of the “edges” we were going to pursue to separate ourselves from our competitors; the heart of the message, though, was that nothing good is automatic or just happens. We were going to control our minds and compete together with urgency and toughness. Consistent effort and execution were going to be the priorities for each of the more than fifty series we would play over the course of the season. Each of us would “personalize” how we earned respect and demonstrated caring for one another and our team. Finally, I emphasized that we had a legitimate chance to play in October. Why not us? It would be us.
The foregoing is excerpted from ONE LAST STRIKE by Tony La Russa. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
Tony La Russa talks more about the St. Louis Cardinals World Championships and the death threats he received while managing the White Sox in the following web-exclusive video.