The man who led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship last season knows baseball—but not how to write about it.
As longtime season-ticket holders for the St. Louis Cardinals, my father and I spent unseemly portions of the past 15 years bickering from our seats along the first-base line about Tony La Russa's unorthodox managerial style. As a La Russa skeptic, I continually second-guessed the manager's incessant lineup tinkering. My father, ever the optimist, assured me that his in-game moves were all grounded in meticulous preparation and statistical analysis. Nearly every game we circled back to the same conversations:
Me: How come La Russa is the only manager to bat the pitcher eighth?
My father: He must've calculated that the eighth-place batter is more likely to come up in sacrifice situations.
Me: Why is La Russa bringing in his third relief pitcher this inning?
My father: The matchups must favor it.
After La Russa guided the Cardinals to an improbable World Series championship last year, I grudgingly surrendered to my father's point of view. Despite La Russa's maddening tendency to over-manage, his intensity and creative decision-making had set the tone for that team's never-say-die attitude. Down ten-and-a-half games in late August, the Cardinals tallied a 23-9 record down the stretch, clinching the National League wild card on the last day of the season. After vanquishing the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals found themselves down to their last strike twice in Game 6 of the World Series before rallying back both times to tie the score, eventually triumphing on a walk-off homerun by third baseman David Freese. Right through the World Series-clinching out, La Russa remained perched in his usual spot at the far end of the dugout, alone and clench-jawed, his mind almost visibly whirring through a series of moves and countermoves, anything to give his team the advantage.
It was La Russa's glowering countenance that spurred the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger to shadow the Cardinals for the 2003 season, which resulted in his bestselling book, Three Nights in August. According to Bissinger, the opportunity to understand baseball "through the mind of La Russa—to excavate deep into the game and try to capture the odd and lonely corner of the dugout that he and all managers occupy by virtue of the natural isolation of their craft—was simply too good to pass up." It was too good to pass up for the syndicated conservative columnist George F. Will as well, who characterized La Russa as a managerial mastermind in his 1990 book, Men at Work.
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It's easy to understand why serious writers are drawn to La Russa. Since being plucked from obscurity to lead the Chicago White Sox in 1979 after a sub-mediocre playing career (lifetime batting average: .199), La Russa went on to manage for 33 consecutive seasons, an unprecedented feat in an era in which " baseball manager" and "job security" are mutually exclusive terms. The accolades speak for themselves: four Manager of the Year Awards, three World Series championships, and the third highest win total in MLB history. But his most lasting contributions grew out of his relentless futzing with the bullpen and bench. Under La Russa, the team's closer became chiefly a ninth-inning stopper, an innovation now practiced universally around the league. He also scrutinized hitter-pitcher matchups, pulling relief pitchers after one batter or benching starters in favor of utility players who had had found success in the past against an opposing pitcher. It was as if La Russa believed that there was always something more he could be doing to help his team eke out the extra victories needed to propel them into the playoffs.
After retiring last November, mere weeks after winning the championship, La Russa returned to his home in the San Francisco Bay area, where he resumed work at his animal rescue foundation and started writing a memoir with the St. Louis-based sportswriter Rick Hummell. I anticipated La Russa's book more than the 2012 Cardinals season, eagerly awaiting an unfiltered glimpse into baseball's foremost tactical mind. Besides, without La Russa's in-game meddling, my father and I found little to argue about this baseball season while broiling in the Midwestern summer humidity.
So how is it that the most persistent question that ran through my mind when I finally read One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season was: If Tony La Russa is such a genius, then why is his memoir so shallow?
Like most sports memoirs, La Russa's brims with the clichés that have come to define athlete-speak. La Russa preaches "the edge of not giving in, making excuses, or giving up"; posits that "the key to beating any outstanding starter is to have every hitter go to war from start to finish"; and asserts that mental toughness "is something [players] can acquire. If they decide to make something important, then they can make it happen." As David Foster Wallace notes in his essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," robotic banality is a staple in athlete autobiographies, but it's especially disappointing coming from La Russa, who might be expected to transcend the conventions of the genre.