Bob Lutz: La Russa’s life after the Cardinals will pass through Wichita

02/22/2012 5:00 AM

02/23/2012 6:56 AM

After the baseball had cleared the glove of Texas Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz, and after Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman had raced home with the tying runs during Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Fox cameras focused on the dour one, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

You know, the guy that never smiles.

Only this time, La Russa was beaming. And clapping his hands. The Cardinals had just struck a late blow in what was to become a game with much more drama and the veteran manager, knowing his time in the game was coming to an end, couldn’t hide his glee.

“I was always taught that you don’t display any emotion during a game, good or bad,” La Russa said. “You don’t want your club to get too high or too low, so that was a very atypical response from me. But gosh almighty, you’re just about to lose the World Series and that happens.”

The Cardinals tied the game again in the 10th inning after Texas had taken a two-run lead, then won it in the bottom of the 11th on a David Freese home run. St. Louis beat the Rangers in Game 7, 6-2, to send La Russa, who had decided in July that his 33rd season as a manager would be his last but shared that information only with the Cardinals’ brass, out on the highest of high notes.

“Just a fairy tale finish,” said La Russa, whose Cardinals trailed by 10 ½ games in late August. “Something nobody could have predicted.”

The 67-year-old La Russa will chronicle the Cardinals’ World Series ride and other highlights of his managing career Friday night at Wichita State baseball’s First Pitch Banquet in the Multipurpose Center at Koch Arena. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling the Shocker baseball office (316-978-3636).

La Russa is spending the early part of spring training with the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., with an eye on perhaps joining a front office. He and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski have been friends, La Russa said, since 1978, when La Russa was managing the Chicago White Sox and Dombrowski was a scout. La Russa is also close friends with Detroit manager Jim Leyland.

La Russa spent 15 years as a player, most of that in the minor leagues, including 108 games in Wichita in 1973. He did get a few cups of coffee in the big leagues, but the coffee was always cold. He batted .199 in 169 at-bats with the Kansas City Athletics, Oakland, Atlanta and the Chicago Cubs.

“I started the 1973 season with the Cubs because I had a real good spring with them and made the team,” La Russa said. “But that was the last time I was ever in the big leagues. I had one game, one run and no at-bats. I pinch-ran for Ron Santo on Opening Day and scored the winning run.”

Shortly thereafter, some injured Cubs players returned to the team and La Russa was shipped out to Triple-A Wichita, where he batted .314 in 106 games for the Aeros.

“We wore those candy-cane red uniforms,” La Russa said. “They were ugly. But I liked Wichita and had a good time there. They put me in the lineup behind Andre Thornton and I think I drove in 75 runs and won the Big Stick Award.”

When you hit .199 in your short big-league career, you remember winning things like the Big Stick Award.

“I’m not sure what it says that I spent 15 years playing in the minor leagues except that I love the game of baseball and wanted to hang with it,” La Russa said.

La Russa signed a contract with the Kansas City A’s on the night he graduated from Jefferson High in Tampa, Fla., and was in the big leagues less than a year later. But that fast start to his career didn’t last as he became a bush league veteran, playing in 1,295 minor league games. From 1968-77, La Russa played at the Triple-A level, with a few short stints in the majors.

“I never felt like I had a chip on my shoulder when I became a manager,” La Russa said. “But managing gave me a chance to be a part of the major leagues, even though I was never good enough to play there. I was just thankful and I never took one day in the uniform for granted because it was so special to be a part of a big-league team.”

He is the third-winningest manager in history with 2,728 victories, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw. His 5,097 games as a manager rank behind only Mack, who managed for 53 years.

La Russa said he’s glad he didn’t go cold turkey in leaving the game. Though he’s not running a major league camp for the first time since 1977, he is around the game in Lakeland.

“If I wasn’t here I think I would have some issues,” he said.

He’ll stop by Jupiter, Fla., where the Cardinals train, for a couple of days next week, he said. But he doesn’t want to get in the way, so he won’t hang around for long.

“There’s a brand new look with that club,” said La Russa, who managed the Cardinals for 16 seasons with Dave Duncan by his side as pitching coach. Duncan has left the team to be with his wife, who is fighting a brain tumor. And star first baseman Albert Pujols left as a free agent during the offseason to join the Los Angeles Angels.

“They’re charting a new direction in St. Louis,” La Russa said. “And it’s important for me not to be a distraction.”

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