Sunday, August 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa upbringing crucial to La Russa's Hall of Fame career

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It was the night before second-grade photo day at V.M. Ybor Elementary and Oliva La Russa had picked out a nice shirt and dressy pants for her son.

But Tony wouldn't have any of it. He was going to wear his gray flannel baseball uniform and cap, and that was going to be it. They went back and forth for a few minutes, but Oliva realized then what the rest of the world would find out:

That Tony La Russa would love baseball more than anything else, and that he would do things his way.

"That's still my favorite story," sister Eva Fojaco said last week.

Today's induction into baseball's Hall of Fame will cap La Russa's illustrious career, a fitting — if still somewhat personally uncomfortable — reward for his remarkable accomplishments: winning 2,728 games, third most all time, and three World Series championships during 33 years managing the White Sox, A's and Cardinals.

His success is celebrated and shared by the three cities — so much so that his plaque will be unveiled today with a logo-less cap since he couldn't pick or have all three — but it was deeply rooted in one place, Tampa.

"A great deal," La Russa said. "The dominant sport to the point of being a religion was baseball — especially with my Italian and Spanish background. Baseball was by far the sport that we were exposed to the most. … So very aware that I had a special opportunity to play baseball, get to love it early."

He was born and raised in Tampa, cultivated that love of the game there, developed his talent, formed some of his core philosophies. He bonded with cousins and kids at the ballfields who became lifelong buddies and are among the 30-plus friends and relatives who came up for this weekend's festivities. He met the first of several legendary influences there, Al Lopez, and today joins him as the only Tampa natives enshrined in the Hall. (Wade Boggs moved down when he was 11.)

He played his way into pro ball there, starring for the American Legion Post 248 team and Jefferson High. Met his first wife there. And, with his playing career lagging and managing not even a thought yet, started on Plan B there, taking classes and graduating from USF then eyeing a Florida State law degree.

•••

The La Russas' apartment above the service station at 12th and Columbus wasn't far from the baseball diamond at Ybor's Cuscaden Park, and Tony soon wore out the path.

He'd head over to the park nearly every morning, playing all day, playing with older boys, and playing well, picking up techniques and nuances of the game from a coach, Andrew Espolita, whom he still credits today. And when he wasn't playing, he was at the park watching older kids play.

"Tony basically grew up at Cuscaden Park," said childhood buddy Buck DeLaTorre.

He would dabble in other sports, and when forced, he'd miss a day for a family outing to the beach or somewhere, but all La Russa really wanted to do was play baseball.

"He always couldn't wait to get back to the park," Fojaco said. "Mom took us for swimming lessons at Cuscaden Park and he didn't want to stay in the pool. He'd point to the field. She said, you have to learn how to swim. He wasn't interested."

The scene was much the same when the La Russas moved across town to west Tampa, the house on MacDill not far from MacFarlane Park, where Tony — now in seventh grade — again took up residence, quickly emerging as one of the best.

"Everything was the game," said Charlie Miranda, the Tampa City councilman who was another childhood crony. "I could see Tony carried a lot of the characteristics from that little park into his baseball career and into managing."

How impressive was La Russa even then? When the Ybor City Optimist's Club put together a team of 12- and 13-year-old all-stars for a trip to Cuba in 1954, La Russa was chosen as the shortstop and co-captain — at the age of 9.

•••

Though La Russa's parents were of meager means — having met when working at the Perfecto-Garcia cigar factory in Ybor City — they encouraged their son to think broadly.

"I had great parents, a great upbringing," he said. "I was definitely taught the value of the big dream."

A smooth middle infielder with quick hands and feet, La Russa played his way into that opportunity.

He starred on the American Legion Post 248 team that featured two other future big-leaguers, Lou Piniella and Ken Suarez. And he was a standout for Jefferson High, where he was voted team captain and Most Dignified in his class.

There was no draft yet, and on the night of his 1962 graduation from Jefferson, he signed with the Kansas City A's, getting $100,000, a white Pontiac Bonneville (with black leather seats) and a pledge to pay for college, a big deal for a 17-year-old.

"My dream was twofold," La Russa said. "To get to the big leagues as a player, and to try to experience a world championship."

He made it to the majors the next year, though it was procedural as MLB rules at the time for "bonus babies" required the A's to keep him on the roster, and he barely played (34 games).

That it took five years for him to get back, and just for a cameo, and that he'd never fully recovered after hurting his arm by not warming up before playing in a softball game in Tampa that first offseason was telling that he was not going to have much of a big-league career. That he stuck it out playing for 15 seasons, while only spending parts of six in the majors, appearing in just 132 games and hitting .199, said something about him.

Wisely, La Russa started transitioning as a player-coach in the minors then into managing.

Fulfilling a promise to his mother, he worked toward an industrial management degree from USF over seven offseasons. He was equally dogged over parts of five more, earning a law degree from Florida State in 1978.

He decided then to pursue an opportunity to manage in the minors. But unsure if it would work out, he took and passed the Florida Bar. "One of the luckiest guessing days in my life," he said.

He said he could easily have hung a shingle in Tampa and been happy lawyering, noting the similarities in preparation and competition. He actually joined a two-man firm in Sarasota (where the White Sox had spring training) and was working on his first case — "a lady who was trying to get competency restored" — but had to hand it off to open camp.

He'd been unexpectedly promoted from Triple A to take over as the White Sox manager the August before, and he didn't know if he'd last.

"I got there, and I felt totally unprepared. … I was a lousy player and I only managed a little bit," he said. "I was hanging on by my fingernails and had no expectation that I would have a long career."

But he was smart, constantly seeking out advice on how to get better and determined to do things his way, parroting a phrase from another mentor, Paul Richards: "Trust your gut, don't cover your butt."

He developed his own style — "Relentless grinder," he called it — based on working harder, preparing better and being more intensive and competitive than anyone else.

"I don't know that anyone could be more prepared than this guy," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who still considers firing La Russa in 1986 "the biggest mistake of my life."

La Russa was also innovative, using relievers based on the most favorable matchups, limiting his closer to one inning, batting his pitcher eighth. And annoying, occasionally yelling at opponents from the dugout, wearing dark glasses so they couldn't see his eyes.

"Always the mystery man," fellow inductee Joe Torre said. "You knew you had to pay attention."

•••

La Russa moved out to California many years ago and doesn't get back to Tampa too often. Though his parents have both passed, Eva still lives there along with dozens of cousins on the Cuervo (Spanish) and La Russa (Italian) sides. It always will be home.

"I give those beginnings in Tampa," he said, "a great deal of credit."

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

     
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