Baseball Prospectus recently had the chance to sit down with Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and of the National League All-Star team. La Russa was the subject of Three Nights in August (by Buzz Bissinger), detailing his style and thought process of managing baseball games. La Russa is one of the winningest managers of all time during his stops with the White Sox, Athletics, and now the Cardinals.
Baseball Prospectus: Before we get to your book, obviously you’re in the heart of a baseball season. The All-Star Game is fast approaching and after the players are voted in, with the additional selections you have, and the tremendous level of talent you have right here with the Cardinals, how difficult does that make it for you?
Tony La Russa: Well, I mean, you know the game is built around players and the better the players, the more fun you have, the easier the job. So, I always look forward to the All-Star experience because you are talking about the best players in the world. You are playing for shouting rights as well as home-field advantage so it should be exciting.
BP: Have you always been in favor of each team having a representative in the game?
La Russa: It’s not my favorite rule to be honest. I just think that sometimes to have representation–I mean, occasionally it happens that you really have somebody that doesn’t belong on the All-Star team and somebody else gets axed that’s a real good choice. So, no, if it was up to me I would not have that.
BP: And obviously the All-Star game sort of changed over the past couple years. Would you manage the game differently if not for home-field advantage being on the line?
La Russa: Well, I believe in just keeping it simple. The idea is, if you are keeping score, it’s supposed to be a competition. And, if it is a competition, you are supposed to try to win it. So, I mean there are certain philosophies about the All-Star game where you want to try to get in as many players as possible. And you know, if Albert Pujols is the best hitter, you don’t keep him in there the whole game and give him four or five at-bats. But, I think the people that play, you try to win the game.
BP: Tony, you’ve managed several larger-than-life superstars. What’s it been like to see a guy who only got to play in the first place because Bobby Bonilla was injured–and you kinda have to laugh when you think about it–grow into what he’s become today in Albert Pujols?
La Russa: Well, it’s a remarkable story to be in the big leagues as quickly as Albert got there. I mean, normally, experience is a great equalizer and you need to learn what you are doing. But he came in right away and it’s kinda hard to believe, to be so good so quickly. Even if Bobby had been healthy, Albert was so special you wouldn’t be able to deny his time in the big leagues.
BP: Right, right. But, you know, obviously it’s all about opportunity. And to get a start that early and have as much success as he had so soon, it really is remarkable. Have you ever seen anything like it?
La Russa: No, not really. In history, he’s had the four best first years ever. And what you gotta like about him so much is that he never has let success change him. I mean, he still goes to the park and works and he’s still trying to win games. He’s very special.
BP: Pujols says that he’s looking forward to this which I’m sure is a sigh of relief to many of the top major league baseball executives, maybe not the Cardinals, but your thoughts on the World Baseball Classic?
La Russa: Well, just looking for more information. I guess we’ll get more, they are going to have quite a bit on it at the All-Star Game. Different ways they are going to pull it off. I think all of us are really concerned basically about the pitchers that are involved. That will be the biggest hurdle. I just don’t see pitchers being ready to be that effective and letting it all hang out that quickly in March. Normally you don’t get them ready until a month later, so that’s a big concern. I’m anxious to hear how they got that figured.
BP: Is there a way you can envision this being a positive for everyone?
La Russa: No. The pitching thing bothers me so much, it’s hard. It does disrupt your ball club, but I think you can work around that as far as getting ready in spring training because everybody is going through the same thing. I don’t know that all the players are going to embrace the competition like Albert has said that he would, but I think that the health of the pitching is the biggest issue.
BP: Tony, you said in (Three Nights) you still continually learn from this game. What did you take away most from last season?
La Russa: Well, I think it showed me that a lot of times baseball people believe there are ups-and-downs and you have natural lulls where a team kinda goes flat and I think I learned that if a team is strong-minded, like our team was, we really just controlled how hard we played every day and once we got it going we never had a really bad stretch. That is because mentally our guys got ready to play and just wouldn’t allow ourselves to get flat. I think I just learned how strong a mind is and especially a team mind collectively, how tough it can be.
BP: How would you describe to someone the excitement of competing in a World Series?
La Russa: If you figure out whatever your dream is, and in baseball your dream is to be a World Champion, so it is potentially a dream come true. First of all the opportunity to participate, and, since I have been in St. Louis you know we had gone to the championship series several times and lost. So the fact that we were able to get in, that was really exciting and then when we lost, of course, that took away from it. It’s a dream come true be able to have a chance to be the World Champion, and it breaks your heart when you don’t win.
BP: As one who respects baseball history, as you approach and pass the managerial records, is it at least a moderately strange feeling for you especially having started so young?
La Russa: Well, I just feel like wins are never really personal. You have to be in a really good organization with a really good team. With that in mind, I’ve just been really fortunate that every place I have gone we’ve had a good situation. I just think about the year that we are playing and hopefully we have a chance to win. This year we have another chance to win.
BP: You touched on this briefly in Three Nights in August, but the best piece of managerial advice you ever got was what?
La Russa: Well, I’ve got so many, but I think probably that the idea is that the game goes very quickly and you have a lot of decisions to make and one way to slow a game down is to stay ahead of it. You are always managing a game trying to think ahead and look ahead and you work really hard to try to ‘what if this, what if that.’ But I also know that in the end, when you make those decisions, the other piece of advice is you gotta trust your gut and don’t cover your butt. You can’t worry about what the second-guessers are going to say, you have to do what you think is right.
BP: Having come into the league and begun managing in the league when guys like Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog were also managing, was there anything that one of them said to you in particular that you recall?
La Russa: I’ve gotten so many pieces of advice that turned out to be so smart and helpful. In the end, Sparky would always talk about your responsibility whether it’s the manager or the coaches. It’s the player’s game, and you are trying to put them in their best position to be successful. That’s really what you try to do, is try to get them to succeed. That’s what we concentrate on. Is there anything about their strengths or weaknesses? Or are there different coaching things that we could tweak their abilities? So it’s just about putting guys in the right spot.
BP: Besides the obvious monetary differences, what are some of the most relevant, but not necessarily publicized changes you’ve noticed in the game during your tenure?
La Russa: Money is a big difference because it really is distracting. But I think the media. When I first started 30 years ago, media was kind of a friend of the player. They would kinda cover for them if they were out late the night before and they weren’t sober or something. Now, there is a lot of hostility between the players and the media because they think controversy sells. They’re always looking to see where they can stir the pot a little bit. Players end up where they don’t trust the media and there’s kind of a battle between players and media. That is definitely a change and something you have to deal with.
BP: And it really gets to the point where it almost detracts from the coverage of the game, doesn’t it?
La Russa: I just wish that the editors would believe that fans don’t really…if it is real controversy you gotta to cover it, but the game itself is more interesting. I think if there’s no reason to stir it up, if it’s not there don’t focus on it or try to create it.
BP: You were (talking about 17 as an age limit), the NFL and now most recently the NBA have an age limit. What are your thoughts on that front?
La Russa: I wish if I could do it again, I’d go back and go to college. Getting started at 17, I was so young, physically, mentally, and you miss the college experience. I know I would have done it differently. We were not in great financial shape and I had a chance to get a decent bonus and help my family so I went for it, but I think the later you start professional sports the better off you are.
BP: Do you think an age limit would ever be good or feasible, for that matter, for Major League Baseball?
La Russa: It wouldn’t bother me if everybody had to go at least three years to college. The question always comes up ‘what about guys that don’t want to go to college?’ If they don’t want to go to college, then I have no problem them starting pro ball out of high school.
BP: Three Nights in August. If someone picked it up what would you want them to get out of it?
La Russa: I think Buzz has included a lot of things in the book. I think there’s things about how the game is played that once you finish reading it that when you watch a game you would enjoy it more. Baseball is that way, the more you learn and the more you understand what is going on, the more you are going to enjoy it. Also, I think people that read it will see how human the participants are. Whether they’re the players, the coaches, the manager they’re just people and doing what they do for a living. They’re not machines, there’s a lot of human nature involved. Just like the people reading it and whatever walk of life they have.
BP: What attracted you so much about Friday Night Lights to make you decide to choose Buzz Bissinger to collaborate with you on the book?
La Russa: I’m a reader, I love to read. And I was really impressed with his talent. Not just be a story of high school football in Texas, but the way he told it, his skill at putting it all together. That was the potential that I saw and I think he’s really done a great job with Three Nights, he’s pulled an awful lot of material together and he tells a really entertaining story, I think.
Graham Bensinger hosts his own radio show on ESPN 1380 in St. Louis and recently graduated from high school. A BP Radio contributor, Graham will be attending Syracuse University in the fall.