Fifty Years in Baseball: Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa is one of baseball’s great managers. With six league championships, and three World series wins, he is the third winningest manager in baseball history. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his career, and his new book, “One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season” Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Now, you could call this a magical year, except for once you read this book there’s very little magic and a whole hell of a lot of work that went into that. This comeback was all done, almost moment by moment, Tony.
Tony La Russa: Well, I think it’s a telling of something that is not produced by computer or Moneyball analytics. It’s a team that had great chemistry and as corny as it sounds, this will to win and they were going to keep going until somebody beat them, but once you have that kind of attitude – I think that one of the things too, Ron, you’ve got to get that going first before you start talking about, ‘OK this is how we’re going to play-in’. Sometimes you get in reverse, you start giving all the schemes and you haven’t got their buy in. Once the club bought, OK, OK now how are we going to play, and you do building bit by bit.
Ron Bennington: But you’re also building your team up. You know, we talk about team chemistry, but it really has to be done man-by-man because it is a game where so many times the individual has to come through. He’s all by himself when he’s at the plate. You’re all by yourself when a line drive gets hit to center field. It’s a different kind of coaching, isn’t it, than a lot of other sports?
Tony La Russa: I think, you do get all these one-on-ones. There’s also another reason – anybody could describe it, we call it “personalize,” we personalize our approach. I say we because our whole staff does. But another reason that you do it is there are so many distractions out there for professional athletes. They’re getting their family, their friends and their agents saying “hey get your money, get your number, get, get, get.” Oh, by the way, if the team wins, that’s nice. Well you’re talking about the money and the numbers, they come after you embrace the concept of competing as a team. So what we talk about all the time is personalize, personalize. Look, you’ve got to take responsibility for putting your piece into this team. You know, it’s like the old ‘Mission Impossible’, if you accept this assignment right? Then we’re going to show you how to handle catching the line drive or taking the at bat, but what we never try to take for granted is selling the player on, OK I’m going to look in the mirror and say I’m doing my best for the guys.
Ron Bennington: And to have that focus, unlike any other sort, 162 games before you even get to the playoffs, so I’m sure a lot of people’s minds start to wander in June or July thinking, hey, we’ll catch back up. How do you keep everybody focused Tony?
Tony La Russa: Well, it’s interesting you said June or July, and everybody has their own way to describe it, for me I think June and July are the toughest two months to play. April and May you’re just starting out, you’re fresh, you’re excited. Then August and September, the end is in sight. If you’re not doing good, at least it’s going to be over soon. If you’re in contention boy, every day you come to the park, it’s excitement. But June and July you really got to grind and that’s really the challenge because you can steal a lot of games against a team that’s kind of lost interest. SO, what we try to do, we try to focus on the series we’re playing and we find a way to make it important. One of the things we say is, you know, if we see you back off, somebody else plays.
Ron Bennington: You’ll do it that quick? It will just be, hey dude, you’re not in it, you’re out.
Tony La Russa: We sell “this is the last game of your life” every day. Now it’s an easy sell early, easy sell late, June and July gets tougher and if you don’t get to buy, then you say OK, I got the office and you’ve got the locker so I’m telling you that somebody is else is going to play, not you.
Ron Bennington: You’ve always been a guy that always seems to me to be all business. Every time you show up at the ballpark – I’ve never seen a time ever in your career where anyone has said, ‘Hey, Tony’s not into being at the ballpark today’. So you’ve got to keep your focus before you can even go back and work on the other guys. You’ve got to get yourself into this. Is that ever difficult for you Tony?
Tony La Russa: I mean, occasionally in 30 years, once in a while, but I was always so challenged by the game. I was so honored actually – you know, I was not a good player – so to have a big league uniform and be able to participate in some way was always a turn-on. If I ever struggled, because it is an everyday business for six months, the things you teach about personalizing, you’re a hypocrite if you don’t do it yourself. So I would look in a mirror and I had my own checklist. If I knew I was a little short and I had to get to level 10 – you know I had things, I put a chip on my shoulder, I’d think about people who would be happy if we’re this or that, there were always ways that I could nudge myself, but you make a good point, I would always first, before I asked them, I wanted to ask myself to be ready.
Ron Bennington: It’s amazing, too, how many moving parts. I mean, there’s no other sport where you use different equipment on offense and defense.
Tony La Russa: To be a true position player who’s a star you need to be a quality hitter which means not just hit for power, be able to handle the bat and read situations. You get on base, you have to understand how to run the bases which means paying attention. It’s not instinctive, you just practice the right things. And to play defense you’ve got to concentrate your butt off every pitch.
Ron Bennington: It’s a phenomenal thinking game and the playoffs are so different than the season. You have a season that’s a marathon and the playoffs are 100 meter races. It’s a different feeling in the stadium between the playoffs and where you are in June and July.
Tony La Russa: Well, that’s one of my favorite things to think about, you just brought it up. The first test is this marathon and you know, there are a lot of times – they say “you never smile in the dugout.” Well, there’s no crystal ball, man. You’re out there grinding and your responsibility during the game is decision making so usually you’re trying to what-if and you’re ahead two or three hitters, two or three innings and you play that game until it’s over. And you do that and it’s a tremendously taxing and big commitment to make. But now you get to October, and I wish I’d given the impression more, it is so much fun to manage play in October because you’re not talking about six months, you’re talking about that moment, that inning, literally. This is what I was taught when I was with the A’s, in a short series you have the ability to think – if you’re a manager – the top of the inning, the bottom of the inning, you can win or lose the series this inning. Times nine, times seven games and it’s over. That immediacy is such a turn-on and it’s a lot of fun.
Ron Bennington: Well that was the thing about the way that you coached is you would make decisions; you would make game-changing decisions during the game. You’re pulling guys and you always seemed so definitive to me. it never looked to me like you would second guess yourself because you are playing hunches, I mean you’ve even admitted that, you’re just going ‘I have a feeling that this is the guy who should be in here right now.’
Tony La Russa: Well, what happens during the game is you can stay ahead of it – in fact there’s a great coaching tip that was taught to me by Billy (Martin), or Earl (Weaver), or Sparky (Anderson), maybe all of them, people talk about the game going by fast, these decisions are flying at you. The way you slow it down is by staying ahead of it. You think, well, if this guy gets on, or if two guys get on, whether it’s offense or defense, you’re always thinking ahead, ahead, ahead, so when the time comes you’ve already been thinking what-if, what-if, what-if. Well, if you’re what-ifing it properly, what-if A, B, C, D, well, A and D are stupid, OK? B and C – close call. OK, I decide B. So when the thing hits you go Bam, you push the button. The only way that happens is to work the what-if game.
Ron Bennington: And once you’ve got there you feel good about your decision every single time. That is the only decision I could’ve made.
Tony La Russa: That’s a good question, here’s the answer. I feel at the time you push the button it’s a good one. But this is what I was also taught: when the game is over and you’re kicking back, that’s your opportunity to learn. That’s why I used to write on those little cards and you can learn about their team, your team, but you learn about yourself. You say, here’s my decision this is what I was thinking, and if you’re serious and you don’t even fool yourself in that process, you’re really going back and thinking, son of a gun, I forgot G, how did I forget that? Then you start kicking yourself but you say, don’t forget it next time. You make that decision you better feel good about it, but later on you better evaluate whether you were really on top of everything.
Ron Bennington: And that’s the amazing thing about baseball is there’s always room to improve. The fact that you can play this game when you were a kid and then go all through playing and coaching and still I don’t think that you even feel like you’ve got baseball down 100 percent.
Tony La Russa: No, you’re always learning. You know, one of the differences – you know, I started playing in 1962, the old days, versus now, a lot of the athletes you get in professional ball – all sports – their pretty spoiled. You know, as soon as someone recognizes you’re a special athlete, they start taking care of you, you’re not held accountable, you’re the greatest, you’re the greatest, so when you get them one of the challenges quite often is confronting a guy with a mistake without him feeling deflated and you don’t like me, you don’t have confidence in me and you lose them. Well how do you improve a guy unless you can point out what he’s doing wrong and let’s fix it, right? There’s an art, there’s a bedside manner to that and some guys do it better than others because you can lose a player. You’re trying to help him but he takes it like criticism.
Ron Bennington: Sure, and because a lot of these guys, unlike any other sport again, you’ve got Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, everybody plays from a different style or comes in with different cultures. Some of these guys are sending a bunch of money back to keep a whole village going. You know, they have all kinds of different responsibilities than the players back in the early 60s. I mean, it is such an international game now, too.
Tony La Russa: Part of personalizing is that you’re trying to establish a relationship me with you, but I’m going to look at you and I’m going to look at your professional side – you’re a pitcher, you’re a player, OK, and we’ve got to take care of as best we can as a staff of getting you in a position where you can help us. But then, you’re a fool if you don’t look at the personal side. OK, Ron, I’m going to get to know you, know your family situation, find out whether you’re sending money back, wife, kids, you’re pregnant, you know, all this kind of stuff. And what happens when you observe Ron different you’ll start to get a feel, well, he’s upset because he’s not hitting, or he’s upset because he’s worried about his kid being sick, and what ends up happening is on a professional side they can’t shut you out because you must have a relationship. On the personal side, some guys have a lot of help and there’s other guys that don’t. So over the years I’ve got some players I’m closer to personally because they’ve opened themselves up to me more. Other guys, ‘hey, I know you care about me, but I’m OK.’
Ron Bennington: What you were able to do with these guys, is that you get into the playoffs in what most of us think is maybe the greatest day of baseball all-time. It was just one of those nights that went on all night and everybody’s watching every single game, and that’s a big part of that momentum that threw you guys in. But I remember that Philadelphia sports fans were saying hey, the Phills ought to lie down to Atlanta because the Cards seems to have their number this year and the Cards are coming on strong. Did you ever doubt for a second that the Phillies would go out and play the game to win. Was there a part of you that was worried that they would think it would be easy to keep you guys out of the playoffs by losing one?
Tony La Russa: Well, I certainly would admit that the thought comes in your mind because otherwise you’re not paying attention. You’re just talking about human nature. Well, that’s human nature. But I will tell you that the staff – and I really believe about our players and me personally – when you’ve gotten around and you’ve gotten to know the Philly organization, from the top, the ownership through the front office, through the manager and the coaches – and I really had an extra chance because in the 2009 All-Star Game Charlie (Manuel) and the coaches handled that, and we had been competing against them. It was my first time to be on the same side, and I watched Charlie and the coaches got the All-Stars ready to play and I watched them during the game. Then you look around for years, you got (Ryan) Howard, you got the second baseman who’s a great player, (Jimmy) Rollins, because of their team, there was no doubt that – I really felt that Atlanta was going to win a game, we were going to have a playoff, but there was no doubt that the Phillies would go about it right.
Ron Bennington: And it’s the only way to play if you want to be a winning ball club, right? You have to play to win every game.
Tony La Russa: Well, there’s a great example and I just had a wonderful experience earlier this year. I had a chance to meet Tom Coughlin. I had dinner with him through a “mutual aid and protection” friend, Sandy Montag brought us together and it was the first time I got to meet him and talk to him, and we discussed the game that they (the New York Giants) played against the Patriots –
Ron Bennington: Sixteenth game, yeah –
Tony La Russa: That’s right. And they had that decision to make, do we want to protect ourselves and not get hurt? And they said, hey, we know only one way to play it, coach knows only one way to coach it, players know one way to play it, and they almost beat them. Well, you walk out of there and you stand up with your head up high and you feel great that you carried that right into a Super Bowl championship.
Ron Bennington: You bring up about meeting basketball coaches and getting together with them, and football coaches, and you see that between all of the sports, you gain a lot from other sports coaches.
Tony La Russa: Well, it started, if you think about it, I played 16 years and I played poorly so now I get a chance to manage with just a little bit of experience. So I go to the big leagues and I got no credibility except I loved the game and I tried to learn it. So right away I go to the American League and every place I look there was a manager you know by their first name. There’s Sparky (Anderson), Billy (Martin), there’s Earl (Weaver), there’s Gene (Mauch), there’s Whitey (Ford), there’s Johnny Mac, I mean it was ridiculous. So, I look at that gap between us and I went out and I asked for help. It’s fun to think back – you know, at the beginning, Chuck Tanner who was in the other league but I met him during spring training, he was very, very outstanding baseball man. From the beginning Chuck, Sparky Billy – Gene and Earl said, maybe, but I don’t want to waste it on you until you prove that you’re going to be around so a year or two later then they were great. So, the point I’m making is, I grew up with my ears open, my eyes open, learn, learn, learn, so now I’m around for a while and one of the neatest things in my professional life is you meet all these coaches and they become friends. Especially in spring training because my family would be in California and at night we’d go to dinner. I was just telling a friend of mine, here’s a typical dinner, Bob Knight would be there, Bill Parcells, Ron Wolf of the Packers, John Havlicek, Bill Belichick, that’s typical. Then somebody else that was visiting, could have been Steve Spagnuolo or Kurt Ferentz, now can you imagine – Bob Gibson, I think I might have mentioned him – can you imagine that conversation. The stuff that was talked about? I’m just sitting there quietly making notes at the bottom and it was –
Ron Bennington: And it’s all about motivating people in the teams. All these things come back to the same thing.
Tony La Russa: What a great point. Listen, once in a while you talk about X’s and O’s, but most of the time you say, hey what are you doing to get their attention or persuade them?
Ron Bennington: Because, just think, 99 percent of the time you’re trying to bring up people who have better skills than you’ve ever had in your life. You know, you’re trying to get the most out of those skills no matter what those sports are and then to bring people into a team. And nothing beats the fact that you’re wearing a series ring. No MVP thing is more impressive, nothing else that you hold in life that’s an individual thing beats that team championship. It just doesn’t happen.
Tony La Russa: Well, part of the sell – and I drop these names because I love dropping them and that’s the way it is because I pay respects when I drop them – but back home, John Madden, one time we were talking and John tells me, what do you think the difference was after our one Super Bowl championship? I said, I got no clue. He says the next year we forgot to start at zero. We ended up playing at this high level so we started at camp and guys forgot that the year of their Super Bowl championship, they started at zero, A, B, C. So that is a tremendous lesson and everything we’re talking about, there’s nothing automatic about it, you know? And you’ve got to piece it together. For example, you’ve got to get them excited. The number one motivation is always there’s a competition when it comes to the ring. Because all of the sudden you could be rich, you could get a lifetime contract for more money than you can spend, or earn the pension, but playing for that ring, see? So what we would do, one of our little gimmicks is we would look around for guys that had their ring and we said, hey – what’s that song, Is that all there is?—well were you disappointed by that? They’d say, oh, no. Well, tell these guys about it, selling it all the time.
Ron Bennington: Just the fact that you go back for the reunions year after year. No one ever goes back to get the third place team together, you know? It’s always the championship team. One Last Strike, it’s an amazing season, but it’s an amazing career. And if you’re a baseball person you can get a whole hell of a lot out of this, but if you’re just a person wondering about how do you excel, how do you take whatever your profession happens to be to the next level, there’s plenty of lessons in here. Tony thanks so much for stopping by here, it was a pleasure meeting you.
Tony La Russa: Thank you for the opportunity and I appreciate your comments, thanks.
Ron Bennington: I’ll see you next time through.
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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.