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Manager talks about his career and Sox collapse

Updated: November 4, 2012 6:13AM

Former White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who last year guided the St. Louis Cardinals to an improbable World Series victory, appeared at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville Monday night to promote his new book “One Last Strike.”

Before meeting fans and signing books, La Russa spoke with The Sun about his book and career and also offered some opinions about his former team and the state of baseball today.

Q: Let’s talk about your book. When readers get to the final page, what do you hope they’ve learned?

A: “One of the first answers would be, how did this team pull off the comeback and win as an underdog? I tried to point out the reasons and a lot of it has to do with non-“Money Ball” stuff, just grit and will to win, refuse to lose, and how you deal with adversity, and how you come together as a team. The other thing is, the publishers encouraged me to tell things I learned or things I said to the team. When they asked me where I learned that, I attribute it to MLB and all my mentors over the years, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Roland Hemond, I learned from all of them.”

Q: A lot of teams down the stretch were trying to overcome adversity and get into the playoffs. What do you feel allowed you to succeed where others have sometimes failed?

A: “We really coach a lot. Our style of coaching is very personal and time consuming. We go out and try and establish a relationship with each guy and you work it all year long. One of the things we coach is, if something is really important to you, we all have amazing reserves, strengths, so we stress that you to have to attach that to the competition and certain things we’re looking for to get an edge. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, improve it, or fix it.”

Q: What about the adversity part? How do you handle that?

A: “Teams like to talk about adversity or bad breaks and say things are not just working out. They give in, every year. People say “it’s not our year” or that they have injuries. Everybody has injuries. It’s a matter of controlling your mind. You’re not going to make excuses, you’re not going to give in. It’s one of the strategies we have. I learned from Lou Holtz, it’s not who you have, it’s who you don’t have. That’s how we handled adversity and somebody invariably steps up.”

Q: You keep using the word “we” as you talk. You sound like you’re still a member of the team.

A: “That’s one of the things that happens since I spent so much time looking back at our club and writing about it. One of the takeaways is, if you’re a fan of the Cardinals, you’re going to fall in love with our guys when you see how committed and gutty they were. If you’re just interested, you’ll admire them and realize this wasn’t something where they just woke up one day, they made it happen.”

Q: Tell us the best thing about managing in Chicago, Oakland, and St. Louis.

A: “Chicago, of course was my first job and that’s where it all began. I had no crystal ball and didn’t know how long it would last. You always wonder if, since you’re making the final decisions, could you qualify for the playoffs? In 1983, I was part of it. In Oakland, the question was could you manage a world championship. It was a laboratory of people that taught me and I was a good student and I just applied it. The things I was taught, they worked. Paul Richards used to tell me “trust your gut, don’t cover your butt.” In St. Louis, that was a real test because St. Louis was going sideways. They had a great history and great players and great eras. Joe Torre, who I replaced, told me there were cliques and pointing fingers and it was hard to turn that around.”

Q: Here’s an old one for you. Do you regret the Britt Burns decision from the 1980s where you ran the starter out for the 10th inning against the Orioles and the Sox eventually lost?

A: “Britt had a shutout going. I mean, it was 0-0 and the fact was that we didn’t handle the seventh inning in that game like we should have. We had a hit and run where I expected to have men at first and third with nobody out and a guy who was a good bunter that bunted badly. Then we had a base hit and a guy that overran a base. Britt was still strong and the other guy hit a ball into the upper deck.”

Q: What do you think went wrong with the White Sox since they faded so badly this year?

A: “I haven’t seen every game but there’s a lot about timing and these spells when you’re winning, you almost can’t lose, and things just fall into place. And sometimes when you lose, it’s just hard to win a game. This is not ‘Money Ball,’ these are people, they’re not machines.”

Q: On the other hand, everybody knows you’re a big fan of Jim Leyland and you’re probably happy his Detroit Tigers made the playoffs. You’re glad to see his success, aren’t you?

A: “I was talking in another interview today about the White Sox and Jim Leyland. He’s been through that two straight years. He had the thing won and Minnesota ran him down. And Robin is just a rookie. Sometimes it’s hard to win, but I was in a good position. I wanted one team to win and the other to get a wild card. I really love the White Sox.”

Q: People know you’re good friends with Jerry Reinsdorf. Do you ever see yourself working for the White Sox some day?

A: “I don’t think so because I want to be in the office where there is true responsibility and need. The White Sox are in good hands.”

Q: What do you see yourself doing in baseball from now on?

A: “Well I work for the commissioner and have been with him since February. I’ll never be a field manager again. It was time to walk away. Things piled up. I don’t miss managing but I miss winning and losing, that’s why the commissioner’s job keeps me close. I’m going to join somebody’s office someday.”

Q: What the biggest difference between players today and when you started in baseball three decades ago?

A: “When I started, it coincided with the big money coming in, and the guaranteed salaries. ESPN started in September in 1979. The whole time I managed there was this explosion of media and money. So what’s happened is fame and fortune has been a tremendous distraction on a team sport and at times it’s fueled sometimes by the guy’s ego or his family or his agent. I have friends that are great baseball guys, great coaches. We talk about what do you to get these players’ attention and persuade them. You have to talk to them first and get to know them before you ever talk about how you’re going to hit or pitch some guy.”

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