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The Chambers Report: Tony La Russa & The Art Of The Cliché

Near the end of Bull Durham, the greatest sports movie ever made, career minor-league catcher Crash Davis (played convincingly by Kevin Costner) famously offers immature superstar-in-the-making pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (played convincingly by Tim Robbins) essential advice about handling media interviews:

As the movie closes, Crash is heading for a manager's job, where he will develop other budding stars such as Nuke, spouting banal conundrums all the way. In this way, Davis is the very archetype of recently retired St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony La Russa, whose singular career leading the White Sox, Athletics and Cards for over three decades is carrying him straight to the Hall of Fame on a rutted road paved with clichés.*

Like Crash Davis, La Russa was a mediocre ballplayer, managing just a .199 batting average in 176 major-league at-bats over seven years, but he was also, like Crash Davis, a sharp observer of the game. We don't know what became of Crash, but La Russa parlayed his smarts into one of the game's greatest managerial careers. Only Connie Mack and John McGraw won more games than La Russa, and he would easily have surpassed the latter had he not unexpectedly resigned immediately after the Cardinals captured the 2011 World Series in one of the most remarkable comeback seasons by any team in baseball history.**

Attempting to capitalize on this historic achievement, La Russa soon - too soon - rushed into print with a book (co-authored by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports reporter Rick Hummel) intended to recreate the drama of the Cardinals' miracle. Unfortunately, One Last Strike: Fifty Years In Baseball, Ten And A Half Games Back, And One Final Championship Season is a monument to the cliché, - a wooden, professorish essay that has the reader nodding on every one of its slow-moving 400 pages. The volume's horrendous subtitle is itself a warning of what is to come.

Now, it's patently unreasonable to expect a baseball manager - or a player, for that matter, with the notable exception, perhaps, of Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher whose celebrated Ball Four was named the best sports book of the 20th century by the New York Public Library - to write like John Grisham, who provides LaRussa with an adoring foreword***. La Russa is obviously a very bright guy - one of only five major league managers to earn a law degree**** - but his is the intelligence of the monotone plodder who patiently scrutinized, by his own count, 750,000 regular-season pitches over 30 years.

Still, despite his own nearly lethal prosaic dullness, La Russa has been the darling of acute literary observers of the game for decades.

In 1991, George Will, a longtime Baltimore Orioles season-ticket holder who grew up in Champaign and sided with the Cubs over the Cards, published Men At Work: The Craft Of Baseball, an exceptional study of just what it takes to flourish in the major leagues. His opening chapter, "The Manager, On the Edge," is a remarkable dissection of La Russa's laborious genius at an early point in his career.

Twenty-five years later, Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights - one of the best sports books ever written; it is to the printed page what Bull Durham is to the cinema screen - penned Three Nights In August: Strategy, Heartbreak, And Joy Inside The Mind Of A Manager, a stunning analysis, written in part with La Russa, of a three-game series in August 2003 between the Cardinals and the Cubs.

Any of these authors could have written about the manager's noble final season with far more acuity and drama than LaRussa himself could ever hope to do. Yet, even so, it is entirely appropriate that the manager tell his own story - and in his own leaden prose. As Crash says to Nuke, "Yes, it's boring . . . that's the point."

In the end, it's more honest that La Russa, in his stolid way, instruct us about his game, than to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (both Will and Bissinger) or a wham-bam mystery writer (Grisham) dazzle us about it poetically, no matter how much more entertaining that might be. Yet, best of all may be, in the end, to sample what each of these writers, La Russa included, has to say.

In Men At Work, Will fills us in on essential details about La Russa's life that the manager hardly nods at in One Last Strike.

Will tells us, for example, how important it was to Tony's career that he was born and raised in Tampa, Florida - "What the Chesapeake Bay is to crabs," says Will, "Tampa is to baseball talent: a rich breeding ground, known for both quantity and quality."

We learn here, too, that Tony, like his Tampa-born friend Lou Piniella, spoke Spanish before he spoke English, an invaluable tool in a sport increasingly dominated by Hispanics, and that a fluke accident in a pick-up softball game tore a tendon that never properly healed, giving La Russa a sore arm his entire 16-year playing career and eventually convincing him that he would never make a successful major league player, thereby leading indirectly to his soaring fungo-like rise as a manager.

The White Sox and Bill Veeck hired La Russa to lead the flailing team in the midst of the 1979 season when he was 34. Seven years later, in 1986, the Sox fired him, an experience that he says "toughened me up pretty well." Oakland hired La Russa only a month after his Chicago departure, when they were 21 games below .500 at the All-Star break. La Russa had the A's in the World Series two years later.

(Once when A's muscle-man Jose Canseco was a rookie and did not hustle on a play, he returned to the dugout to find his manager furious. La Russa told him, "Do that again, I'll break your ass!" As the admiring Will tells it, "He certainly is tough enough now.")

Already the spectacularly successful - if bland - La Russa "mantra" was well-developed: "Play hard, win, make money and have fun."

Problems start, he would say, "when the third and fourth take precedence over the first and second." In that context, it's the manager's responsibility to set the proper tone and example; what he does most is "purposeful watching." According to Will, though La Russa constantly "looks like an angry man, he is not. He is, however, serious - about everything." With his dark hair and features, "his watchfulness has an aspect of brooding."

Will shows us that La Russa talked the way he managed and the way he wanted his team to play, "controlled but intense." That's also the way that La Russa writes. His "is a style of constantly maintained edginess." It is a style perfectly suited to the reign of the cliché.

As for Bissinger, his Three Nights In August, one of the most incisive baseball books ever written, has the twin advantages of a Pulitzer author and the best of all modern managers. Bissinger is a true sports fanatic who brings heart as well as immense talent to his subject. He loves La Russa for being an old-school guy who managed not by computer and stats so much as by "feel" and his copious notes. Over the long haul these obviously worked for him.

Bissinger's book takes the jewel of the sport - the three-game series between contenders late in the season - and shows just how much baseball is an intellectual game, at least from the manager's perspective. Ever the lawyer and thinker, La Russa may never have had much fun in his dugout retreat, but he was always thinking. This is why he always fascinated Bissinger - as well as Will, Grisham, and others - who reveals in his book just how much smarts and analysis matter in a sport where millions of dollars are always on the line. He shows that baseball - despite the steroid era and stats craze - will always be baseball, a game people love precisely because it is so human.

While Bissinger generously gives La Russa co-authorship credit, it's clearly Buzz's book. La Russa is not capable of writing indelibly like this, say, about the unflappable Dave Duncan, his lifelong friend and the best pitching coach of all-time: "Dave Duncan is the kind of man who in the storm at sea would simply lash himself to the mast; he'd wait out the hurricane by reading the paper, hold the putter steady in the tornado."

Instead, in One Last Strike, La Russa throughout writes like an automaton: "You go into every game with a plan for how you want to attack a team offensively and defensively. Obviously, sometimes that plan works out and sometimes it doesn't. Any time you put two individuals or clubs together in a competitive environment, you can't predict what will happen with any great accuracy. That is why, as the expression goes, you play the games."

Or this: "It's true that I didn't smile a lot in games. I wanted to maintain a competitive demeanor. I wanted to maintain the same exterior whether things were going good or going bad. One reason for that is I wanted to set an example for our players and also to be a constant they could rely on."

It's not that prose such as this is entirely reprehensible. It's just that it's tedious, banal, boring. And it only gets more so as the pages pile up, everywhere dragging the hapless reader nearer slumberland: "Pujols passed the test with flying colors." "The goal of each series is to win it." "They just kept lacing up their shoes, going out there, and playing the best ball they could." "Our hearts went up into our throats." "Sooner or later, all things come to an end." "We can only play one game at a time." Etc., etc., etc. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes."

While La Russa has a great topic to write about - how the Cardinals, against all odds, came from 10 1/2 games behind to make the playoffs on the night of the final game of the season and went on to win the World Series - he does not have the tools to write about it with passion, intensity, and beauty. It just isn't in him.

La Russa was for three decades a baseball manager, after all, a driven observer of, and leader in, an often tedious stretched-out sport notorious for having no time limits, for having endless seasons lasting from mid-February "spring" training to almost November - and for swimming through it all in an oceanic torrent of platitudes.

As La Russa himself notes: "Athletes are often criticized . . . for relying so heavily on clichés to talk about the games they play. To some extent that is true. We do get asked a lot of questions, and sometimes, whether because we've been asked the same one so many times, because they speak the truth, or because we are speaking guardedly to protect ourselves, a teammate, or our club, we resort to the tried-and-true - just like this one."

Thus it is clear that La Russa knows what a cliché is, knows that, at bottom, it is clichés that best represent the inevitable tedium of his sport, and therefore realizes fully that, as with all his colleagues, it is his fate to think, speak, and write in an endless sea of predictable language. At the end of a season which was the culmination of a lifetime spent studying the game, he stood for baseball more purely than any other modern practitioner of the sport.

La Russa became a great manager "by believing in process over result, present moment over statistics, team unity over individual talent." When he stepped down, he had three World Series victories in two leagues, six league championships, five Manager of the Year awards, and was third all-time in major league wins. Clichés and all, he's the best there is, and we love him for it.

Let's give this somewhat boring baseball prophet the fitting last word: "As much as all of them (his players, coaches, and other staffers over the years) contributed, I knew from the earliest days of my career that I was the one who had to make the decisions - all of them and all of the time. That's what I was paid to do, and if my ass and my job were going to be on the line based on those decisions, then I wasn't going to turn them over to anyone else. That's just the reality of being a manager in the Big Leagues."

Could John Grisham - or Crash Davis, for that matter - say it better?


*As a 65-year-old former manager, La Russa immediately upon retirement became eligible for election to Cooperstown within six months; his election will probably take place this year with his induction to follow in 2014.

**La Russa was second all-time in post-season major league wins (70), third all-time with 2,728 regular season wins, second with 5,097 games managed, and second with 33 years managing (tied with McGraw). La Russa was also the first manager to retire at the end of the same season in which he had won a World Series. In the summer after retiring he came back to manage the National League team to an 8-0 victory in the 2012 All-Star game.

***La Russa long urged Grisham to pen a baseball novel, and he finally did so last year.

****The other four were Branch Rickey, Miller Huggins, Hughie Jennings and Monte Ward, all of them in the Hall of Fame.


Comments welcome.


Previously in The Chambers Report:

* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

* Melville, Elvis And Baseball

* A Tale Of Three Cities

* How Obama And Bush Undermined America

* Ayes For Atheism

* Paterno.

* Some Guys Have All The Luck


Posted on March 1, 2013

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