One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Seasonby Tony La Russa
One Last Strike by legendary baseball manager Tony La Russa is a thrilling sports comeback story. La Russa, the winner of four Manager of the Year awards—who led his teams to six Pennant wins and three World Series crowns—chronicles one of the most exciting end-of-season runs in baseball history, revealing with fascinating behind-the-scenes/b>… See more details below
One Last Strike by legendary baseball manager Tony La Russa is a thrilling sports comeback story. La Russa, the winner of four Manager of the Year awards—who led his teams to six Pennant wins and three World Series crowns—chronicles one of the most exciting end-of-season runs in baseball history, revealing with fascinating behind-the-scenes details how, under his expert management, the St. Louis Cardinals emerged victorious in the 2011 World Series despite countless injuries, mishaps, and roadblocks along the way. Talking candidly about the remarkable season—and his All-Star players like Albert Pujols and David Freese—the recently retired La Russa celebrates his fifty years in baseball, his team’s amazing recovery from 10 ½ games back, and one final, unforgettable championship in a book that no true baseball fan will want to miss.
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One Last Strike
By Tony La Russa
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2012 Tony La Russa
All rights reserved.
Going the Distance
For a professional baseball manager, the only thing worse than driving home 2,000 miles in October with your season over is having a 2,000-mile drive home when your season ended like ours did in 2010 - a legitimate contender falling short. It's not the distance; it's the disappointment.
As it turned out, the distance was a plus; it gave me an opportunity to sort out 2010 and examine my uncertainties about 2011. On September 28, 2010, we'd been officially eliminated from a playoff berth. The excitement of counting down your "magic number" as the front-runner is replaced by the despair of seeing your "tragic number" being reduced to zero and elimination. The word eliminated is very appropriate - it feels like the whole season has been flushed down the toilet.
This was not my first postseason trek. My wife, Elaine, and I along with my daughters, Bianca and Devon, live in California. Following the 1996 season, my first in St. Louis, I'd made the same drive—three and half or four days—back home. In 1996, I was excited yet exhausted. That year had been the most difficult I'd ever had as a manager. We hadn't made it to the World Series, but we'd won the National League Central, swept the San Diego Padres in the Division Series, and gone to the National League Championship Series, where the Braves beat us. The loss to the Braves just shy of the World Series stung, yet there was plenty to be satisfied with, especially given where we'd been at the start of the year. We'd begun the season as twenty-five players and eight staff members wearing the same uniform, but we weren't really a team. After some very difficult challenges, some our staff had never before dealt with, we'd become a single unit. If we hadn't, we wouldn't have advanced as far as we did. The drive in '96 had been the perfect bookend to the season. I was dog tired when I got into my car, but when I emerged on the West Coast I felt refreshed and inspired by what lay ahead. I knew before my foot had even touched the gas pedal that this drive would be different, because 2010 was not 1996 - not on the calendar and not on the field or in the clubhouse.
If I compared the story of the 2010 season to a drive back home, the difference between what I saw and what I'd hoped to see was slight. It wasn't like I'd viewed war-torn cities, derelict houses. Instead this city was one where the neighbors had let their lawns grow shaggy, hadn't pulled all the weeds, and maybe the kids had left their bikes outside in the grass.
The 2010 team didn't have the same level of intense focus, pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat, that had marked the successful clubs we'd had in St. Louis since the 2000 season. We hadn't been horrible. And maybe in another organization our performance might have been acceptable or the falloff that I saw would have been imperceptible to another pair of eyes. However, we'd slipped on my sliding scale from our customary 10 in 2009 to a 7 or 8 in 2010.
From about the 2000 season on, the Cardinals were really good a majority of the time. Many things contributed to our success, the first and most critical was the intensity that we brought to the competition. That's just one cornerstone. It got our team playing hard for nine innings, every day, all year long. Sure, we didn't embarrass ourselves in 2010, but we didn't get to the same level as teams like Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. They wanted it more than we did; that was not acceptable. The intensity hadn't disappeared altogether - it lurked beneath the surface - but it didn't have the same presence in the locker room, in the dugout, or on the field.
As I wound my way to California, I listened to the static-crackled accounts of the Phillies and Reds in the Division Series. I couldn't help but think about the nature of that radio signal's interference and how it affected communication. I wondered if maybe I hadn't done the right things to get through to people. You know, there's the expression that managers have to push the right buttons. Well, with the exception of the ones they wear on their uniforms, players don't have buttons. They aren't machines. They're human beings, and increasingly the number-one duty of a baseball manager and staff is to understand and relate to the diverse personalities of the players. Since the 1980s, that job had become even more critical, more time consuming and more challenging.
The issues we'd encountered as a team in 2010 were more than just pragmatic problems that any team might face. They felt more substantial, more systemic. I had a decision to make that was bigger than just making personnel changes around the diamond: I had to decide whether I would return in 2011 to manage again or retire. After thirty-two years, I couldn't take the decision lightly. By July, I'd been thinking about it for weeks, but I still didn't have a good answer. Much of my indecision had to do with distance and perspective. Though the St. Louis Arch had long since receded in my rear view mirror, I was still back in the clubhouse and my office, still trying to figure out what to say to the guys that would fix the team's problems. Clearly, what we'd tried hadn't worked. Did that mean that it was time for me to go, to let someone else with a different approach reach this club a different way? I wasn't sure. So I sat there in my car, with the quiet hum of the play-by-play of the Division Series leaking out of my speakers, and reviewed everything about 2010, hoping to find my answer.
For years, what we'd always done as a coaching staff - equipment men to video guys, the strength and fitness coach, public relations people, the director of travel, everybody - was to personalize our relationships with the players. Whoever you were, my coaching staff and I wanted to establish a relationship with you. Not every player is the same, and not every position they play is the same. Our goal was to create an environment where the ballplayer looked forward to coming to work and knew that a bunch of people were trying to put him and his teammates in the best position to succeed. You demonstrate that effort in a lot of ways - the strength of the drills, the quality of the facilities, the care and attention paid to every part of the workday - all of it adds up to a big positive. Wherever I'd managed, the ownership and front office supported those efforts. Without exception, the management - Bill Veeck, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Roland Hemond in Chicago; the Haas family and Sandy Alderson in Oakland; Bill DeWitt's group and Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak in St. Louis -stayed this course through good times and tough times.
The new Busch Stadium, with all its upgrades for fans and players, complemented the "personalizing" philosophy. Our players totally appreciated the improved indoor batting cages, training equipment, weights, video room, dining facilities, meeting spaces, and locker rooms. I could go on, but the point is that all the thought put into those details - from batting practice to the blades of grass in the field - sent a positive and simple message to the players: we care. Whether a guy is on a hot streak or going through a slump, we want him to anticipate coming to the park knowing that he has our full support.
This simple concept of personalizing had been at the heart of my survival as a rookie manager in August 1979. As soon as I was actually standing in front of a major league team, I realized nothing was automatic about the attention they would pay to me and how well they would follow me. At first, I simply related to players as I remembered good managers relating to me. I remembered the style of those who'd made me feel better as a player, teammate, and competitor. John McNamara, Loren Babe, and Gus Niarhos all established a personal bond with their teams. They focused on having players respond with energy and competitiveness, and part of how they ensured that was to connect with the players on a personal level. Every season since my first this had become more and more the controlling philosophy of my management style with the players, the staff, and myself. My awareness and emphasis on personalizing coincided with a shift in the players and in sports culture. During the 1980s, professional baseball was changing dramatically compared to my introduction to the major leagues in the '60s and '70s. The distractions of fame and fortune were a constant adversary to a manager focusing on team matters. The players were hearing many more voices than just their coach's, and those voices were telling them to get their numbers up to earn more money and attention. If the team wins, that's nice; if not, that's how it goes. In this changing landscape, the only effective way to lead was to personalize my interactions with the players, to form bonds with them individually. When it came to pushing our team message through all of those distractions and rhetoric, establishing a personal connection with all of my players was the only effective solution. It was hard, and it was time-consuming, but it worked.
Toward the end of my White Sox years and early on with the A's, I began to really understand personalization and why it met so well the leadership challenges of professional sports. Every team and every season has its own set of problems. By personalizing, I was creating a pattern of feedback that would address those problems - both big and small - that we faced as a team and as individuals. Together with the coaches, we would find the points that needed attention and craft messages to specific players, groups of players, or the whole team. In the process of personalizing these messages, we'd develop a number of "edges" that would help us compete individually and collectively. These edges ranged from the macro—team chemistry, handling adversity, making players' families feel welcome at the clubhouse - to more individual issues like physical and mental toughness, feeling comfortable in pressure situations, emphasizing process over results, and dealing with distractions. Depending on what needed to be emphasized in a given year, we would hone our relationships with the players to promote these edges as much as possible.
The edges gave us a competitive advantage, but we could only produce those edges by providing individual feedback. Those competitive edges all start with and come back to your relationships with your players. Over the years I kept refining this personalizing philosophy and formalizing how I'd apply it to my leadership responsibilities. Before I could ask the players to take personal responsibility, I had to personalize my own efforts. The theory is only powerful if it works in both directions.
At the same time, personalizing with players never meant that everything they did was okay. We didn't sign any blank checks. You're kidding yourself if you think you'll win players' trust that way. You win them over with your honesty. In fact, one of the ways we'd show this throughout the season was in how we reacted when they made mistakes. Whatever the problem was, we'd tell them what they'd done - whether it was throwing to the wrong base, making a bad turn, or laying back on a ball - and we'd deal with it as a fact and not a judgment. We created an environment that recognized that mistakes would happen and would be corrected.
By the same token, I'd ask our players that if they had an issue with something to tell a member of the staff or me directly. It's a part of human nature to grouse about things, and long ago we'd designed a system to deal with complaints. Of course, it wouldn't always work, leading to frustration. The clubhouse is private, but sometimes we'd hear someone being critical and complaining about the organization - maybe it was the quality of the food we offered, the way a coach had waved a runner around to take another base, or how we handled travel arrangements. We don't allow those kinds of behind-the-back complaints. We expected everyone to be honest and direct. If something wasn't working, then it was up to us to keep experimenting to find ways to improve things. But for that to work, we needed everyone's candor.
When you create that kind of environment, the guys look forward to coming to the park. They come early, and they respond well to the various assessments and input coaches have for them. In a system like ours, where I was constantly giving and receiving feedback from players, coaches, and everyone on staff, I was forced to pay attention to everything. I'd look at the clubhouse or the dugout every day to see if a different feeling existed than previously. I'd read into our interconnected relationships. I'd observe when people were getting to and leaving the ballpark. Would they work on things or just hang out? Maybe the weight room wasn't as active as it once was. I was constantly on the alert for those kinds of things. As I thought about the 2010 season, the problem was that I couldn't find anything quantifiably different. It wasn't like I was taking attendance every day and noting down who was arriving when, who was in the weight room, and for how long. I was doing what we called "sniffing" - just testing the air. On the surface, things appeared to be as they had been the year before; the trouble was more a feeling than anything tangible I could point to. If you've ever come home after a trip away and everything looks like it's still in place, but something smells different, then you know what I'm talking about.
Whether on a baseball club or at your house, that's a tough thing to address and an even tougher thing to fix. In 2010, as we moved into the second half of the season, the best way to put it was that the environment in the clubhouse was colder, more clinically professional than it had been.
Excerpted from One Last Strike by Tony La Russa. Copyright © 2012 by Tony La Russa. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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