Monday, October 31, 2011

An appreciation for a man I'm not sure I liked

I read today that St. Louis Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa has retired. He goes out on top -- with his Cardinals being the highly unexpected World Series champions.

ESPN reports that LaRussa made up his mind more than two months ago that he was not returning to the team.
La Russa said there wasn't a single factor that led to his decision, but he began having doubts about returning for 2012 midway through the season. In late August he told general manager John Mozeliak and other team officials.
La Russa said the timing of those discussions -- about the time the Cardinals appeared to be out of wild card contention before their miraculous run -- was pure coincidence. He said he simply felt it was time to go, a feeling that didn't change even as the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season, then upset the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers.
He spoke with little emotion at the news conference with one exception, when he paused to compose himself as he thanked his wife, Elaine, and two daughters for putting up without him over much of the past 33 years. But he did say his meeting with players after Sunday's parade and celebration was short but emotional.
LaRussa finishes his career third on the all-time managerial wins list, and having won three World Series titles. And the 2011 crown was as unexpected (by the experts) as any team since, perhaps, the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, who beat LaRussa's Oakland Athletics in five games.

I noted in the title of this post that it is supposed to be an appreciation for a man I'm not sure I liked. Allow me to explain.

As you might know, I covered sports in Los Angeles from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s before exiting the journalism industry for the first time in order to get my Master's degree. That period overlapped a good chunk of LaRussa's success in Oakland, where he won three straight American League championships from 1988 through 1990.

LaRussa's A's were, therefore, one that consistently drew media attention, and that attention ensured that my freelance opportunities when they visited southern California were plentiful. LaRussa was, in my opinion, somewhat arrogant. My sense then was that he had little time for the media, save for those few who covered the team on an everyday basis.

Needless to say, LaRussa was not someone I admired all that much. When he went to St. Louis, a team that wasn't a personal favorite, the respect meter didn't go up.

Of course, I eventually left the journalism industry and opted for a career in higher education. Therefore, whatever thoughts I had about LaRussa were irrelevant; like him or not, I didn't have to deal with him.

And then came the 2011 post-season. You would be correct in assuming I wanted the Cardinals to lose to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Texas Rangers. But something happened at some point in the playoffs.

No, I wasn't rooting for the Cardinals, but I found myself respecting, admiring and appreciating LaRussa's managerial talents in ways I had not before. And when the final out was recorded, and LaRussa ripped off his glasses before hugging one of his coaches, I smiled.

Yes, I was happy, genuinely happy, for him.

And so LaRussa goes out as only few people in professional sports can -- on top and on his terms. Good for him. May he enjoy decades of time with his wife and daughters, the people who have always been the most important in his life.

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