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April 22, 2009 > Book Review: Biography of a big league manager, a swing and a miss

Book Review: Biography of a big league manager, a swing and a miss

By Richard Medugno

Tony La Russa - Man on a Mission by Rob Rains, Triumph Books, March 2009

If you're a baseball fan, you surely know that Tony La Russa is one of the top managers in the major leagues and has been one for 30 years now. He won a World Series as the skipper of the Oakland A's in 1989 with the "Bash Brothers" (Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) and Fremont's own Dennis Eckersley in the bullpen. 17 years later, he led the St. Louis Cardinals to World Championship in 2006.

At 279 pages, Rob Rains, a long-time sports writer, has written a fairly detailed account of La Russa's life and career in baseball. This book is definitely not for the casual baseball fan - a quick read of Wikipedia's entry on La Russa provides more than enough information. A hardcore sports aficionado, however, will find it enjoyable, although ultimately unsatisfying - sort of like being stranded on third base.

The problem is that too many of the interesting and controversial events and elements that make up the life of this "man on a mission" are glossed over, left unexplained, or not closely unexamined. One gets the sense that the author is an outsider with very little access or insight into La Russa's life and therefore, his subject comes off as is a bit of an enigma.

Maybe La Russa is an enigma - he has the reputation of being one of the most educated and well-rounded individuals to ever manage a major league team - he went to law school after his playing days ended prematurely because of injuries - yet, he has dedicated virtually his entire life to a game. He is so serious and focused on getting an "edge" and winning, that he's known for taking spring training games as seriously as the playoffs.

Clearly, a bright, sensitive man, La Russa is a vegetarian and an animal lover, having established a foundation for their protection, yet he has on more than one occasion after a loss violently attacked the post-game buffet in the club house with a bat. There are other inconsistencies in La Russa's character that writer Rains fails to get to the bottom of or even offer an opinion upon.

While La Russa and family still reside in the Bay Area, moving here in the late '80s when he took on the Oakland A's assignment, he was raised in Tampa, Florida. He grew up playing baseball and competing with Lou Piniella, the former Yankees star and now fellow manager for St. Louis Cardinal arch rival, Chicago Cubs. Though La Russa was a highly recruited youngster, he spent most of his professional playing days in the minor leagues.

Tony married young and had two daughters that would become estranged from after divorcing their mother. He quickly remarried and started another family. The daughters from his first marriage would take him to court years later to basically get his "attention." At this point, it would be fascinating to know why a "family man" like La Russa, who is known to be fiercely loyal, would treat his own flesh so callously and claim that he was just following a counselor's advice that it would be best to be an absent father.

We do learn about all the players Tony didn't get along with: some obvious like A's showboats Canseco, Rickey Henderson and Ruben Sierra; and some not-so-obvious like Cardinals Ron Gant and Scott Rolen.

This book contains surprising little information or discussion about how La Russa feels about the steroid scandal, despite having managed two of the biggest tarnished stars, McGwire and Canseco. He was a staunch supporter of McGwire until the home run hitter took the fifth in Congressional testimony on the steroids issue. It seems a lot was going on under La Russa's watch that he didn't know about. For an obvious control freak-type, it makes you wonder, "What did La Russa know; when did he know it; and what did he try to do about it?"

Another area that gets glossed over in this book is the drunken driving arrest of La Russa in 2007 and the death of relief pitcher Josh Hancock a few months later in a car accident while driving under the influence. Rains never addresses the obvious questions: Does La Russa have a drinking problem? Were there any previous alcohol-related incidents? Did he feel any guilt that he didn't or couldn't do more to help his young player?

I saw Tony La Russa in person once, at the airport in San Jose. It was in the off-season and he was waiting for his bags. A friend pointed him out to me. He appeared to be an average guy, not terribly happy while he waited, and maybe even a little lonely. When I started reading this book, I thought I'd get to know him much better.

Unfortunately, though I got a lot of factual information and anecdotes about La Russa, I don't feel I know him much better and I doubt I will have any more affinity for him next time I see him during a Giants-Cardinals on the tube. In Joe Buck's foreword, he starts out saying, "You don't know Tony La Russa ..." After reading this book, unfortunately, I still feel that way.

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