Monday, October 31, 2011

La Russa's Legacy

The whole notion of "going out on top" sounds good, but it doesn't happen often enough. Too many athletes, coaches, and managers stick around hoping for one more trip to the top of the hill--one that seldom comes.

That's why it's nice to see Tony La Russa say goodbye to the dugout, just days after claiming his third World Series title. La Russa has been there, done that. And could any season ever top the one La Russa and his Cardinals just finished? I doubt it.

Just about anyone who follows sports knows about the last three games of the World Series: the Game 5 "phone-gate" story, the epic Game 6, and the make-no-mistake-about-it Game 7 that gave La Russa his final ring. But there was a lot more to Tony La Russa's last lap.

Don't forget La Russa's struggle with a case of shingles so severe it kept him away from the ballpark for a few days and in pain for many weeks. Don't forget the key Cardinal injuries: starting pitcher Adam Wainwright missed the whole season, outfielder Matt Holliday missed a big chunk and The Great Pujols missed a couple of weeks. There was the whole "is this Albert's last year in St. Louis?" free-agency deathwatch. And then there was that month of September.

While the baseball world focused (and maybe over-focused) on the Red Sox meltdown, the Cardinals faced an even bigger deficit, clawing past Atlanta the last night of the season to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.

And then the Cards knocked off the heavily-favored Phillies. And then the Cards knocked off the same Brewers team that had outpaced St. Louis in the NL Central during the regular season. And only then did La Russa get his final shot at the brass ring.

You can read all the stats about La Russa's career and still not fully appreciate this man. I'll cop to my own mistaken read on La Russa. Back in the 1980's, I'd occasionally be sent to cover an A's game and find myself having to do the postgame interview thing. Mind you, I wasn't a regular in the clubhouse, just one of those microphone-wielding itinerants who are eyed warily by athletes.

I often found La Russa, well...challenging. Especially, but not exclusively, after a loss, he could be a tough nut. Not just grouchy, because that I could understand. No, it seemed that La Russa felt that every question was a challenge to his intelligence or maybe even his manhood. It seemed to me then like insecurity, and I can remember thinking that this poor guy needed to learn to relax.

What I didn't know, because I never got close enough to La Russa to know, was that this man is a grinder, a guy who will outwork you or die trying. As his friend John Madden told us this morning, "'A' students don't make the best managers and coaches." The implication: La Russa was never a star on the field, so he set out to dominate the game as a manager.

I finally got a sense of the real Tony La Russa many years later in, of all places, a room beneath the stage at Oakland's Paramount Theater. I'd wormed my way into a role in the annual Nutcracker ballet performance in which La Russa recruited jocks and "celebrities" to perform in the beloved holiday classic. For Tony, the annual fundraiser was a matter of passion: his daughter, Devon, was a dancer. Tony and his wife Elaine were serious supporters.

La Russa's passion for ballet seemed to me an expression of love for his wife and daughters (his other girl, Bianca, would later become an Oakland Raiderette), his way of supporting them in the same way a baseball family supports the man of the house through those long seasons.

So I began to see La Russa in a new light. And the conversion was complete as we BS'd backstage during the break between rehearsal and performance. La Russa was relaxed, funny, and very excited about a project he was embarking upon with author Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights): Bissinger would observe a 3-game Cardinals series and use it as a leaping-off point for an exploration of the inside world of the sport, with La Russa as the tour guide.

That's when I gained a full appreciation of Tony La Russa. He was, by then, a man in full. His career path was set, he was engaged in altruistic activities like the ballet and his Animal Rescue Foundation, and now, this book would help establish La Russa's legacy as a Baseball Mind. The book Three Nights in August ended up being a cut above the average ghost-written sports bio.

Madden says La Russa could have been successful coaching any sport because he cared about the arts of coaching and leadership. I think he's right. When you mixed La Russa's passion for baseball, his will to win, his willingness to buck the norm (who else was willing to bat his pitcher in the 8-hole?), and his relentless curiosity with what turns out to be a very wide stripe of good old humanity, you wind up with Tony La Russa.

I'm glad I was wrong about him all those years ago.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coach Harbaugh, What's Your Deal?

It would be nice if Jim Harbaugh was getting nationwide attention this morning for turning the sad-sack 49ers into perhaps the NFL's most interesting comeback story of the season.

Instead, most of the talk is about Harbaugh's breach of postgame etiquette (relax, I'll address opposing coach Jim Schwartz in a moment) after the Niners' thrilling 25-19 win over the Lions in Detroit.

In case you haven't seen it, here's the video clip. Here's my take: only the grouchiest of grouches could begrudge Harbaugh his immediate joyous romp onto the field (and even his shirt-untucking chest bump with lineman Alex Boone, though the mind boggles trying to imagine Tom Landry or even Hank Stram doing that).

No, where Harbaugh crossed the line was his failure to rein things in as he approached Lions coach Jim Schwartz. It's a simple bit of civility to master: look the opposing coach in the eye, offer a firm handshake, say "Nice game, Coach," and move on. Like any other bit of good manners, you can question the sincerity of the act, but without good manners, where are we?

I've heard the argument that Harbaugh's behavior is important to the persona he's trying to build for his team (and we saw the same act at Stanford). Not good enough for me; there's no sin in treating your opponent with respect, even as you try to mop the field with him. We often ask our athletes to serve as role models for our youth; it's fair to ask coaches to do the same.

Now: Jim Schwartz. No halo for this guy, who should have just seized the high ground and ignored Harbaugh's faux pas. Chasing Harbaugh down the field and turning an act of rudeness into a near-brawl? Classless and inexcusable. Another fine lesson to young people, who we often advise to "just walk away" from trouble.

I am increasingly troubled by athletes (and coaches) who confuse joyful celebration with disrespect for an opponent (see Milwaukee Brewer Nyjer Morgan for a series of examples). Sometimes the line is hard to discern; baseball is full of countless disputes over just how slow a home run trot can be before it becomes disrespectful.

But knowing the right way to behave after a football game is no more difficult than knowing which fork to use at the banquet table. Watch the best-behaved person in the room and follow the lead.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Great Expectations

There's a big difference between hoping your team will win and expecting them to win.

I'm not plowing new ground when I point out a slight, shall we say, arrogance that comes with rooting for the New York Yankees. After all, the pinstripers have won 27 World Series and no other team has even played in more than 18. Plus, as we all know, New York is the center of the Western World (see familiar illustration).

Still, you couldn't help but notice the strange silence at Yankee Stadium as Game 5 of the American League Division Series went to the bottom of the 9th. The Tigers held a 3-2 lead, and the Yankees would be sending the heart of the order up against Tigers close Jose Valverde, who hasn't blown a save in 2011.

Time for the Stadium to turn into a howling cauldron of noise, right? Not so much. Despite TV's best efforts to find clapping, shouting fans in the stands, what we saw (and heard) was a pretty sedate scene. Compare that with what happened time and again at San Francisco's AT&T Park late this year--even when the Giants had been eliminated from playoff contention, even when the team was down by several runs. Noise, and lots of it.

The AT&T Park situation was so striking that broadcasters often commented on it and new Giants CEO Larry Baer made note of it in a postseason letter to season ticket holders. In San Francisco: hope. In New York: well, not hope. More like a sense of entitlement.

And once Valverde had 1-2-3'd the Yanks (frosting the cake by striking out Alex Rodriguez for the final out), did the assembled multitude stand and offer thanks for the Yankees' AL-leading 97-win regular season?

Fuhgeddaboutit. What have you done for me lately?