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Childhood friends of Tampa native Tony La Russa knew something special was in store

TAMPA — The days began early in the summertime, usually by 8 a.m. Some mornings, the rec departments would run the show. Usually, the boys just gathered on their own.

If equipment was available and enough kids were around, they'd play a regular game of baseball. If not, they would make do with broomsticks and taped balls made of cork.

This is where the boy's baseball education began. First at Cuscaden Park near the family apartment above the service station off Columbus Drive in Ybor City, and later at MacFarlane Park when his folks moved to West Tampa.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Didn't matter. The games continued until his father, Anthony, came home from his dairy route.

"We played all day. His mom would come out and call for us three or four times, and we just kept playing," boyhood friend Roy Carrasco said. "It wasn't until his dad called that we'd come home. You'd hear him calling, 'To-neeeen.'

"And then we'd come running."

It took until Monday morning, more than 50 years and a third World Series ring later, for the game to finally end for Tony La Russa.

• • •

No one sets out to be a baseball manager. At least not in the beginning.

Years pass and disappointments accumulate before a ballplayer eventually recognizes his future is more suited for filling out lineup cards than taking the extra base.

Yet those who grew up with La Russa in the 1950s and '60s saw the first hints of a career that would lead to more victories than any big-league manager born in the last century.

He was tenacious. Studious. Always looking for an edge. Qualities that fans in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis would come to love and appreciate years later.

"He was always very intense, always serious," Tampa CPA Paul Ferlita said. "Most of us took the game pretty seriously because we played at Cuscaden Park with a man named Andrew Espolita, and he taught us how to play the game the right way.

"But Tony was a little more intense than the rest of us."

That has always been evident, even for those who have known La Russa only from the stories in newspapers and the cutaway shots on television.

The game comes first, and good times are a distant second. He does not suffer fools, and he considers loyalty a sacred obligation.

This approach has rubbed some the wrong way, and so La Russa's popularity has not always been commensurate with his accomplishments.

And the accomplishments are innumerable.

La Russa, 67, retired Monday, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw on the all-time list of managerial victories. That would be the same Connie Mack who began his career in 1894 and the same John McGraw who managed his first game in 1899.

He joins Sparky Anderson as the only managers in history to win the World Series in the the American and National leagues, and he is the only manager to win multiple pennants with more than one team.

La Russa revolutionized modern bullpens and approached the game with the intellectual air befitting a man with a law degree from Florida State.

"Cuscaden Park was like a breeding ground for baseball," said Buck DeLaTorre, who has known La Russa since elementary school. "If we weren't playing, we were there watching the high school games or the semi-pro games."

For a man who made his mark as a manager and often belittled his playing days with their .199 career batting average, La Russa was a better ballplayer than most will ever know.

He was a slick-fielding shortstop with quick hands and a unique grasp of the game. When the Ybor City Optimist's Club was putting together a group of youth all-stars for a trip to Cuba in 1954, La Russa was chosen as the shortstop and co-captain.

He was 9 years old.

"A lot of us were 12 and 13 years old, and he was 9. Now, four years isn't much of a difference when you've got 22-year-olds and 26-year-olds, but it's vastly different for a 9-year-old," said Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda, who was a co-captain on the Cuba trip. "I was a pitcher, and he was the shortstop, and I've always told him I made him famous. Because if I had any kind of fastball, all those ground balls would have been going to the second baseman instead of to Tony at shortstop.

"There were two things I always looked for before I pitched. I wanted to make sure the fences were 400 feet away, and I wanted to make sure Tony was the starting shortstop."

These were heady days for youth baseball in Hillsborough County. La Russa, Lou Piniella and future big-league catcher Ken Suarez were on the Post 248 team that reached the American Legion World Series. DeLaTorre played minor-league ball with Houston.

By the time he was ready to graduate from Jefferson High, La Russa was one of the most sought-after shortstops in the nation. This was 1962, three years before the baseball draft, and so more than a dozen teams were offering him a contract.

As the story goes, Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley was serving cake and cold drinks at a West Tampa graduation party in order to curry favor.

La Russa signed with the A's on the night of his graduation, getting a $100,000 bonus, a pledge to pay for his college and a white Bonneville with black leather seats.

Because of rules regarding so-called "bonus baby" contracts, La Russa was in the big leagues with the A's a year later. His career, however, was soon derailed by injuries and an inability to keep up with big-league pitching.

"We all knew he was a big-league ballplayer," Ferlita said. "He was a lot smaller than the rest of us when he was younger, but he was very gifted with his hands. Back in those days, you didn't have to hit much if you were a shortstop, and he hit well enough.

"I don't think anyone is surprised he's where he is today."

Where he is today is on the short list of the greatest managers in history.

He won a World Series with an overpowering lineup in Oakland in 1989. He won with a team in St. Louis in 2006 with fewer regular-season victories (83) than any champion in history. And he won this season with a team that was 10½ games out of the wild-card race in late August. He is forever learning, forever adapting and forever working.

"During the summer time when he was in junior high and high school, he would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning so he could help his dad deliver milk," Carrasco said. "That's the kind of son he was; that's how much he appreciated his father."

His job is over now, and the games have all been played.

For the kid from West Tampa via Ybor City, it's time to relax and enjoy time with his family. At least until that day in 2013 when the Hall of Fame calls.

Childhood friends of Tampa native Tony La Russa knew something special was in store 11/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 12:23am]
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