After a middling playing career as a middle infielder, he began managing in the minors in 1978, made it to the majors the next season with the White Sox and has been at it ever since, having moved to the A's, then the Cardinals, winning more games (2,682) than the Rays have played.
The weekend series at the Trop is special, just the second time he has gotten to manage in his home area (though the Cardinals did have two springs in St. Petersburg before vacating to make way for the Rays). Both his parents have died, but La Russa still has plenty of family in the area. "They're going to be out in force," he said.
In a half-hour conversation with the St. Petersburg Times last week in his Busch Stadium office, La Russa was willing to discuss a number of topics. Here are excerpts:
On managing his 5,000th game last month, second most in MLB history behind Connie Mack's 7,755:
That got my attention. I've been taught so well from all those mentors, and the one thing they always tell you is that you pay attention to what's now, or shortly beyond it, but don't ever get distracted by that other stuff. It was 10 days before and one of our people in PR said, "Y'know, it's a shame that 5,000 will be on the road." And I said, "5,000 what?" That's a lot of games. Of all the things, that one got my attention.
On how much the 2,682 wins, third most of any manager, mean to him:
I think I've tried to be very honest about that and I get a lot of skeptical looks — the target was never a number of wins. Way back when at the winter meetings, Topps used to have a party — current managers, past managers and Hall of Famers — and I remember when I first went in there, you saw these giants of baseball. Topps used to have a tradition when you won 1,000 games they'd give you a little briefcase. I remember going, "1,000 games — man, can you imagine winning 1,000 games?" And whenever that happened (in 1991 with Oakland), that was the only one. … Since then I really haven't paid attention to it. And this is where I'm disappointed when someone doesn't believe me. … I don't take the win total personally.
On his reasoning that his success is the product of the good situations he has been in, compared with colleagues such as Jim Leyland and Tom Kelly (former Twins manager):
From the White Sox to the A's to the Cardinals, I have never not had the good fortune of the ownership and the front office and the players. If you ask (Rays adviser) Don Zimmer right now to put a hand on the Bible, or a Racing Form, and you say, you're going to tell me if Jim Leyland had been in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, he'd probably tell you — and I would agree — that he'd have more wins than I have. Or Jim would have the 2,000 and I would have the 1,000. So when you look at the good fortune of the organizations, and you look at your friends and your peers, it's tough to take (the success) personally. You appreciate the good fortune and leave it at that.
On whether he will return next season to surpass John McGraw (who won 2,763) for second place on the wins list behind Connie Mack (3,731):
I'm either going to be there because I'm all fired up to manage, or I won't because the fire's out. It will have nothing to do with how high I could go up on the list.
On if there is a word, given all those others have used, that he likes to describe himself:
Yeah, "baseball man." Two words.
On whether "relentless," which comes up a lot, is a compliment:
It's a reality. You ask any coach, especially in baseball where your challenge is to be ready to compete every day. You've got to have a relentless kind of approach.
On what he's most proud of:
I always look at this that we have a unit here — the coaches, the trainers, the guys that handle your equipment, the person that does your travel — and all of us try to create an environment where guys can be as productive as their talent allows. With the exception once in a while of somebody disputing that, the thing I'm most proud of is I can go back to the Chicago days and the Oakland days and now the St. Louis days and have a real closeness with a lot of players. … We've always preached you win the right way and you lose the right way. … It's been such a consistent philosophy over the years. I defy you to find people who don't think that's how we do it.
On what to do with the DH:
Dump it. No. 1, I think both leagues should have the same rule. … (Without the DH) there's a lot of strategies and possibilities … and I think the game would lose a lot not having those moments, basically then it's just out there and slug, slug, slug.
On interleague play:
Total question for the fans. If they like it, if the fans are for it — and they keep showing attendance is up — then I'm all for it. If the fans don't like it, there's a lot of rough edges.
On expanded use of instant replay (as he is on the commissioner's special committee):
I think used carefully — that's what the committee is trying to do and what the commissioner is stressing, that you don't want to overwhelm the game and add time for reviews — I think there will be a little bit here, a little bit there. Personally, I think a great majority of the time I would rather rely on an umpire's judgment.
On whether players linked to performance-enhancing drugs should get into the Hall of Fame:
My two cents is to treat them all the same. If you want to say none get in, then none get in. But you can't pick and choose a couple guys and what they are representative of. I see quite a difference of opinions, and it comes off kind of hypocritical. … If you want to not understand it, fine. But then everybody that's been somewhat proven, nobody gets in. One thing I'd add, and I think this is a good point that I hardly see any more, in the early days of weight training, when the stuff really started in the '80s and into the early '90s, a lot of that was creatine-driven, and that's not illegal. … There's no doubt there were some illegal substances, but I think there's a point there where there were also a lot of assumptions about when the period started and who was doing what when it was creatine, and that wasn't anything like a banned substance then or now.
On whether he'd vote admitted steroids and HGH user Mark McGwire (now the Cardinals hitting coach) into the Hall of Fame:
And Barry Bonds, who has been repeatedly accused?
I don't know enough about Bonds; I know what's been reported. I just know that I watched Mac work. And I also know when he was talking about taking some of the stuff, was that HG-whatever, he was having problems with his heel. We thought his career was over.
On his impressions of Rays manager Joe Maddon:
I think back to when (pitching coach) Dave Duncan did a tour of Europe with Joe (in 1995) and he came back and said, "Man, I met a guy that really knows the game." He goes over to California (as a coach) and does a great job and now he comes here and he's the manager and he does a great job. So I think he's a really talented guy.
And on the Rays' success overall:
I think a lot about the Rays like I think about the A's during their heyday. They signed an exceptional group of players and pitchers and have done a great job of developing them — and that's why the system doesn't work. I don't care if you look and say how many different teams have been in the World Series, if the system really worked then the guys you develop through your system you'd be able to keep them beyond the time when they get to make a lot of money. … The way it is now, if you work hard you have this shot in a little window that you play to your best and then you may be able to keep a piece or two, but you can't keep all pieces.
Tony La Russa is not always all business. There are a few jokes on occasion. The tireless hours he spends on his Animal Rescue Foundation. The impressive list of FOTs — Friends of Tony — that he will host, which one day last week alone included Super Bowl-winning Packers coach Mike McCarthy, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean and former NFL star Trace Armstrong. And there is a full-sized stuffed toy tiger that sits on a black leather chair next to the desk in his office, which came from a fan after the 2006 World Series win over Detroit and good buddy Jim Leyland. "It reminds me of cats," La Russa explains. "And I call it 'Jimbo' for Leyland." But most of the time, La Russa, 66, in his 33rd big-league season, is all about winning. It has been that way since he first got into pro baseball 49 years ago, signing with Kansas City the night of his June 1962 graduation from Tampa's Jefferson High, and pretty much every day since in a career he never expected to last this long. "Hell, no," he said.