La Russa: “It’s The Only Part of My Cardinal Career I’m Uncomfortable With”

I’ve said it before---recently as a matter of fact---and I’ll say it again: the only part I miss about doing local TV is the long-form interviews I used to do for Sports Sunday on KMOV.

We rarely have those on TheITDRoll.com Morning After…and they rarely happen in radio, in general…but I was fortunate enough to have a number of them over the years in television, and when you have them, they’re the best.

It becomes a conversation…the interview subject is relaxed…and you can tell you can go places you normally wouldn’t be able to go.

Yesterday, it happened on TheITDRoll.com Morning After, and because of it, we were able to get into a topic that is rarely discussed by either of the two parties, but is something that all Cardinal fans are aware of.

But, before getting into it, some backstory is needed.

Tony La Russa had refused to appear on any station at which Kevin Slaten was doing a show. As I’ve said on the radio, I personally disagreed with that stance, because if I were La Russa, I would have gone on Slaten’s show and answered each and every question thrown my way by Kevin. The man has three World Championships. And, like Slaten, he’s an attorney. He’d be able to hold his own just fine.

By not going on Slaten’s show…I felt like it empowered Kevin. It let those who knew of the circumstances know that La Russa was bothered by what Kevin was saying. And, Slaten could use it to his advantage to say that La Russa wouldn’t come on his show, because he was scared of being asked the tough questions.

Official disclaimer: I’m friends with Slaten and have talked to him a number of times since his last show on KFNS…and I like La Russa quite a bit. I’m giving my opinion of how the situation could’ve been handled. But, I’m not in Tony’s position, and I’m not in Kevin’s position, and there may be details I’m not aware of.

The whole point in bringing up the situation between Slaten and La Russa is because Tony refused to come on our show---or Frank Cusumano’s show---as long as Slaten was at the same station…even though The Cat had tried to explain our show was employed by insideSTL Enterprises…not the radio station.

But, Tony wasn’t having any of it…and so we hadn’t him on the show for years.

And, I became so used to not having him on the show, I wasn’t even thinking of having him this week.

Then Doug told me a random story.

La Russa was having a book signing earlier this week at Left Bank Books. Doug walks in with his cameraman, and Tony stops what he’s doing and says to Doug:

“Hey, Doug. How are you doing? Hey, if you guys ever want me to come on the show, I’d love to do it. I really like that show. You, Tim, and Jim have a good time and don’t take things too seriously. So, just let me know whenever you’d like to have me on.”

Doug was shocked.

A.    He couldn’t believe Tony knew his name.
B.    He couldn’t believe he wanted to come on the show.

But, because Kevin was no longer with the station, La Russa lifted his embargo, and he wanted to come on.

When I heard that, I had a feeling that when he came on, we were going to get some good stuff.

And, sure enough, it wound up being one of those interviews that you’re just engulfed in.

We talked about his (surprising) favorite moment of the 2011 World Series, the most difficult part about managing, his thoughts on Matheny’s first year, Pujols’ legacy in St. Louis…and then something that led to the topic of the most famous Cardinal War…his having to deal with aging star players…and Ozzie Smith.

Here’s the transcript of the discussion as recorded by Zac “Saaaaaccccckkkk” Brune:

Tim: I got to ask this and if you want to slap me around that’s fine, I picture here in a few years, you are going to have that red sport coat on at home plate with the rest of the Hall of Famers. And there is going to be a time whether it be here in four or five years, that you and Ozzie will be standing there together. And, Ozzie will be on that stage there in Cooperstown while you are speaking. When you are with the other Hall of Famers, that strikes me as odd that there is going to be this wall there. On your end, is there openness to communication? How would you describe that Tony and the potential moment?

La Russa: It’s a fair question, and I think I know and our teammates knew in 1996, my responsibility is to put the best team on the field, that’s what I’ve said all along. Now, you may disagree with playing time and decisions, but if you disagree that I’m doing the very best I can, I would not take that very favorably. In fact, reality was that it was my first year in the National League, I had a lot to prove. There was no way I could have a personal vendetta with anybody. I never did in 30 years. It was difficult. I have reached out (to Ozzie) several times since then, because my thought is, “Life’s too short.” For a player like Ozzie to say, “I don’t want to be around when he’s there. I can’t take my rightful place (in Cardinal history).” Well you know, I can understand it if he believes in that stuff. But, I said, “Life’s too short, you’re welcome to take a little bit, ignore the fact that I’m there.” And it wasn’t accepted well. So, it’s a very uncomfortable situation. That’s the
only part of my career with the Cardinals that I’m uncomfortable about. And, if it happens, when it happens (that I’m out there with the other Cardinal Hall of Famers), there are a bunch of guys out there, we can stand in a line and not stand next to each other.

Maybe I’m the only one who thinks about stupid stuff like that, but I do wonder how Ozzie will handle Tony’s Hall of Fame induction…and how he will handle those Opening Day Ceremonies when all of the Hall of Famers are standing up there together with their red sport coats on.

In the whole scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

But, that day is coming, and in the back of my mind, I’d like to see it resolved somehow.

La Russa pissed Edmonds off big time---big, big, big time---when Jim came back to St. Louis in July 2008 with the Cubs. It was his first time back since leaving the Cardinals, and Tony fired some shots that Edmonds swore he’d never forget. Edmonds told me he would never talk to La Russa again.

Well, a few months later, La Russa showed up at F15teen, Edmonds’ restaurant Downtown, and walked in the door during an event Jim was having for his teammates. Tony walked over to Edmonds and apologized, and that was it. They are back to that father-son relationship they had when La Russa was Edmonds’ manager.

I can’t imagine Ozzie and Tony will ever have that, and like I said, it really doesn’t matter. It’s their business. It only came up because of the question in the interview about having to deal with aging superstars…which Tony had to deal with plenty here. It just so happened that the one that was never remedied…and still hasn’t been 16 years later…is the one with the only (at this moment) Cardinal Hall of Famer he managed.

For the record, we reached out to Ozzie’s representation, and their official stance was “no comment.”

Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below. I’d be curious to see what Cardinal fans think of the whole deal.

Either way, you can listen to the entire interview by clicking

I don’t make a cent if you choose to click it. So, I don’t really care if you do. But, if you’re a Cardinal fan, I promise you that you’ll enjoy this interview.

For those of you who can’t listen, here are some excerpts of the interview as transcribed by Saaaaccckkk.

Jimmy “The Cat” Hayes: Before we dive into this, have you listened to this show before? And if so, what are your thoughts on our show?

La Russa: 2/3 of it is really smart, funny and entertaining. And the other 1/3 is being carried along. Occasionally, I’ve heard it. I haven’t been around St. Louis much. You guys are bright, it’s entertaining. You don’t talk a lot of sports. (laughter)

Tim: Nice. We need to make a promo out of that.

The Cat: You haven’t given it the best review in the past when we have discussed it.

La Russa: You’re right. I didn’t really listen to shows on any station because it distracts you and sometimes irritates you. Now that I’m a fan, I second guess everyone that I see. And I enjoy that stuff.

Tim: You are talking about listening and hearing things that irritate you as the guy that pulls the strings. Once I read Three Nights in August, I was embarrassed going on the air and pontificating on what I thought was an accurate perception on what was going on with the Cardinals or with baseball, and that book detailed all of the various aspects, politics and statistics that I didn’t have the first clue about. It’s humbling is how I would describe it.

La Russa: I think way back with Three Nights, I really wanted to do a part of that book after I had retired. I didn’t want to write that while I was still working. The simple fact was that ARF had just built a 38,000 square feet and we were looking for ways to pay it off, and that became a really neat way to do it. With that said one of the reasons I always wanted to be a part of that book was; it’s just like it is the four of us now or if we were at lunch. We had lunch together, you guys care about baseball, and we talked about baseball. And you’ve got a lot of knowledge, but it is not what you’ve done every day, your whole life. I’ve been taught by baseball people ever since I was 17 years old. And, in that conversation, I would pass stuff about baseball that I’ve learned to you, because that is my profession. You could talk to me about what it is like to do this show every morning. Invariably, when I was with fans and you start talking about how the game is really played, or whatever you pick from the lineup, some of the defensive maneuvering or whether to start the runner on a 3-1 count with 2 outs, you get into that stuff and they would be fascinated. You enjoy it more the more you learn it, and that is what we try to tell our players. You try to teach forever because you start to look at how beautiful it is because it changes every pitch. The point I’m trying to make is that I like to share what I’ve learned and people that have an interest in the game, you learn too and you enjoy it more.

Doug: What did you think the hardest part about managing a major league team was?

La Russa: If you look back to when I started, the game was changing in terms of guaranteed money. And also, I started in August of ’79, ESPN started in Sept ’79 so it was the beginning of a lot of media, more than we have ever been exposed to before. And so, the most difficult part, and I share this with the coaching friends of mine, how your first priority now is to work through the distractions that players feel about being selfish and personal and getting their bit of the pie and you are coaching a team sport, and the ideal way is they think about team, professionalism and at the bottom drops your fame and fortune. Without even a close call, most difficult part is trying to get their attention to get them to buy into team and put faith in the right priorities.

Tim: I had it saved on my DVR, and there would times that if I was in a bad move, I would go watch the final couple of innings of game 6. It was like a drug and it would put me in a better place. How often have you gone back and watched a good portion of that book you wrote about.

La Russa: The interesting part and I hope it is interesting; it was the first season I’ve gone back and looked at parts of the season. Like 2006, I have not seen the first replay of any part, except I watched the DVD once or twice, and the reason was because you had next season to get ready for, it totally consumes you. And because I wasn’t working, I was able to look back for a couple of reasons. We did a little video recap last year during Winter Warm-up with Bob Costas for the thing at the Peabody and then the book. And there is a six minute DVD that they play at my book signings that begins in the
ninth inning down two runs. It was a ridiculous, entertaining and unbelievable kind of history and to relive it. My favorite moment actually is at the end of game 7 when the guy that wanted to fight me, was hugging me, in Lance. And I asked him what made you feel better, wanting to punch me or hug me? I’m not going to tell you what his answer was. I agree totally with you Tim, it is such an uplifting moment and the enjoyment that a championship brings to people is important reason why you get motivated.

The Cat: I know you are going to disagree with the phrasing of this, I understand you were looking for an edge. Now that you are out of it and watching a game, can you enjoy it as a sport? Or is your mind thinking of moves?

La Russa: It bothers me because you said controlling. Guys get rushed to the big leagues so much the whole time I managed. When I played, you paid your dues. A lot of guys get to the big leagues now and don’t know how to play, so the whole point that you’re faced with while you manager or coach, if you want to be a guy that ‘let’s the guys play’, you have a guy left or right field that doesn’t move no matter who the hitter is, what the score or count is, you just don’t know how to play. So you have to get aggressive from the bench to teach your guys. But the guys that know how to play, we would let them know like Edgar Renteria would have the green light on first base. It’s not a matter of controlling, but you do have to control it because guys are still learning or they don’t care enough to play the game right. Second part, when I watch games, I’m almost always up top watching the game. And, I’m having the fun that fans do, and I second guess everyone I see. It’s fun.

Tim: You make reference to the adjective of “controlling”, what would it be like when you develop relationships with these guys, Edmonds would be an example in 2008 when he was with the Cubs and you went out of your way to go to his restaurant, I don’t know the details of it. Obviously your relationship is very good with him now. But with Rolen, and how things went down in 2006 with him and eventually him taking off and it didn’t go well. Or even back in the 90s if you wanted to pick out some guys that left here and had some negative things to say and how difficult it would be when you develop relationships, grow with these guys, win with these guys, battle with these guys for six or seven months and it ends in a negative fashion and you have to be the one to fire the bullet sometimes.

La Russa: Well, that is really an all-encompassing question, Tim, and we could do an hour on that, it brings in the manager’s most difficult job and that is dealing with aging superstar. I went through that with Ozzie and that has not turned out well at all. I had gone through that a couple of times in the American League. I had Don Baylor’s last year in ’88, Reggie’s last year in ’87, I had already been through that and you try to do it and handle your responsibility with respect and all that stuff. I think the bigger point, and I think it is my favorite part, my number one favorite part about the 30 years are the relationships with virtually almost without exception every player that was a teammate in Chicago, St. Louis and Oakland. And it is because our style, the one we learned and enforced was to personalize, we tried to make sure that every player established a relationship with a teammate and that we respected them, they trusted us and they knew we cared for them. So you build these good relationships, almost without exception, and there are a few, no doubt about it, and Jim is one of the best examples; there are texts earlier this winter about our relationship on what it is now. But once in awhile because you have the office and they have the locker, you have that tough call, and maybe there is something that you have to reprimand or you have to correct or give them a tough piece of news about their future or role. You can avoid it and, I remember Sparky always told me, ‘Tony, I understand your style is not the same as mine, the only thing you have to be careful about is if you ever get too close where you can’t make the tough decision or have the tough conversation, than you’ve gotten too close,” and that was a perfect way to explain it. But, bottom line, my relationship with Jim is like family, and except for a few, that is exactly the best part about running into an ex-teammate. I’m thrilled by that part of my career, it is something that we as a staff worked at and cared about a lot.

You can listen to the entire interview by clicking HERE.

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