Tony La Russa getting his Cardinals to defeat the Rangers in the World Series… (Charlie Riedel/Reuters)Early July, 1978. Hot Chicago day.
I was sitting in the visiting dugout at old Comiskey Park with Don Zimmer and Walt Hriniak. We were talking baseball, of course, and - get this - mortgages. Zim had just finished paying off his St. Petersburg house while Walt and I had eons to go with ours.
As we talked, a young White Sox coach, just up from managing in the minors, was on the field, practicing the tricky art of launching the straight-up pop fly coaches would hit for the catcher at the conclusion of that now sorely missed activity - infield practice.
It was the first week of his White Sox coaching career and he was less than a year away from his first big-league managerial job.
So you can kinda say we knew Tony La Russa when.
La Russa certainly fit the classic profile of a successful player turned manager, playing for 12 minor league clubs, good for 1,295 games, to go with a 132-game big-league utility infielder’s career that finished with him hitting a point under the Mendoza Line, with no home runs and seven runs batted in.
Playing the game will not get him into the Hall of Fame. That’s clear. But managing will. The Cooperstown clock began ticking yesterday when La Russa announced that he is retiring after 33 years, three world titles, and 2,728 regular-season victories, the last 1,408 of which have come as skipper of the Cardinals.
The fact is that statistical achievements can be exceeded. The mark of a truly special player, administrator, or manager is doing something that leaves either a lasting memory or special imprint on the game.
Babe Ruth, for example, is no longer the home run leader, either regular season or career, but he always will be the Home Run King. He, and he alone, established the primacy of the long ball, changing the game forever. Branch Rickey invented the farm system, and no one can imagine baseball without it. And Tony La Russa likewise changed baseball, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.