Invariably, any literary treatment in which St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is the subject is destined to be compared to 2005’s Three Nights in August. Yet Rob Rains had no fears in undertaking his new book, Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission. It stands firmly on its own through a very different treatment of a subject that is known on one level by millions, but really understood only by a select few.
As FOX Sports’ Joe Buck observes in the foreword, “You don’t know Tony La Russa. You think you do, but you don’t. I guarantee you that what you think you know about this man is not accurate. I have never met a man in sports or life who is more misunderstood.”
I can attest to this. As a member of the working media covering the Cardinals, I have a certain level of professional familiarity with La Russa, but only the small slice at the level which the manager allows. Reading Man on a Mission reminds me there is so much more to the man than meets the eye.
While Three Nights names close La Russa friend Buzz Bissinger as its author, its very core was formed around unlimited access to the skipper. While perhaps the book is objective, one can never forget that La Russa’s fingerprints are all over it – to the point he penned the foreword. The book’s copyright names its holders as “Tony La Russa and H.G. Bissinger”.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, Rains charted a very different course. While sharing with us La Russa’s own words countless times in Man on a Mission, they are usually the manager’s topical comments made at the time of milestone events during his 30 years leading major league clubs in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis and his over 60-plus years on this Earth.
Rains pulled off this feat masterfully through considerable research in the archives of newspapers and publications dating back to the 1960’s and augmented by direct interviews with more than four dozen La Russa relatives, friends, ex-players, coaches, peers, baseball executives and media members.
That allows a comprehensive view of the body of La Russa’s life and career without all the rough edges necessarily having been smoothed off due to the passing of time or the accuracy of memory or motives of the person speaking.
Perhaps the only quibble I have with Rains is in his choice of a subtitle. “Man on a Mission” implies there is both a beginning and end to La Russa’s singular quest to win championships. While Rains explores the former in detail, going all the way back to the manager’s childhood days in Tampa, the conclusion of La Russa’s mission remains undefined, apparently even to him.
Had I been asked to title the book, I would have pushed for the “Three R’s”.
Perhaps that is too derivative of Bissinger’s tome, but this is how I summarize the manner in which La Russa conducts his affairs – Relentless, Respect and Revenge.
In one way or another, Rains returns to each of these three R’s countless times as he moves through La Russa’s life in a chronological sequence.
“Relentless” is a word that can be used to describe La Russa’s teams’ approach on the field and in their preparation, but also as a personal descriptor of the man. In Man on a Mission, we re-live the considerable return gained from his constant pressure as well as many of the personal hits taken by the man and those close to him along the way.
One prominent indicator of La Russa’s legendary intensity might have been best illustrated by former Oakland A’s catcher Terry Steinbach who noted, “There are probably only some select players who can play for Tony. He has a definite mind-set of what he wants his players to be like.”
Rains recounts triumphs and clashes with La Russa by many in each category, including favorites like Carney Lansford, Dave Stewart and Mark McGwire and those that didn’t fit the mold such as Jose Canseco, Ozzie Smith and Scott Rolen.
“Respect” for the game is one of the basics learned by a much younger La Russa that still guides him to this day. Lack of respect shown his club is a motivating factor often deployed by the manager. Former A’s shortstop Walt Weiss explains.
“He’s the best I’ve been around at creating an ‘us against the world’ kind of mentality. He thrived on that. He felt like if everybody outside was against us, we would pull together to get it done,” Weiss recalled.
Then there is respect for the game of baseball. Perhaps the best example is La Russa’s careful handling of the Kenny Rogers pine tar incident in the 2006 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Though he took a lot of heat for not going for the jugular, Tony quietly ensured the problem was resolved without turning the situation into a circus.
Finally, there is “revenge”. Some may think that term is too harsh, but La Russa acknowledges the common thread as it relates to hit batters and attempts to intimidate. When once asked to respond to a comment that “La Russa is all about revenge,” his reply said it all.
“Good comment. If somebody takes a shot at us, we absolutely come back with one. In this game, if you allow your club to be intimidated, you’re beat. Just don’t take cheap shots, that’s all,” La Russa warned.
While this is most often related to enemy pitchers throwing 90 mile-per-hour baseballs at his players’ heads, it might just as well be applied to sportswriters viewed being insincere or serving up bulletin board material that could be used by opponents as ammunition against his club.
In fact, it has been La Russa’s way his entire life. As his cousin Bobby Cueto recalled from their youth, “I saw a kid push Tony. The kid was bigger than him, and I went over and told Tony he could not let that kid push him around. The next thing I knew Tony had knocked him down.”
Throughout all 295 pages of Man on a Mission, Rains offers a deft mix of stories within a story that accurately depict the success and controversy that continue to surround Tony La Russa to this very day.
With holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day coming, consider the gift of a copy of Man on a Mission for the Cardinals fan “tied for first” in importance in your family. It happened to me. As I was awaiting my review copy of the book from the publisher, little did I know that my wife had gone out and purchased it for my birthday!
Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission is the 25th book by St. Louis-based author Rob Rains spanning a writing career of almost 30 years. Over a dozen of his works have covered Cardinals greats such as Jack Buck, Ozzie Smith, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols. A former beat writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and USA Today Baseball Weekly, Rains is now a freelance author.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at his blog, The Cardinal Nation.
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