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Tampa's Tony La Russa elected to baseball's Hall of Fame

LAKE BUENA VISTA

The dream was hatched on Sunday spring afternoons decades ago at diamonds in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Anthony La Russa taking a break after a long six-day week on his dairy delivery route to bring his son across town or over the bridge to watch actual major-leaguers playing exhibition games. "Dream the big dream," the La Russas would tell their son, and he did. Signing a pro contract the night he graduated from Jefferson High at age 17, playing in the majors himself less than a year later.

Tony La Russa ended up not being much of a player. But he got the opportunity to move into coaching and then managing, and turned out to be one of the best in the history of baseball. During a 33-year career he won three World Series and 2,728 games, third most all time.

Monday, La Russa received the game's ultimate honor, election to baseball's Hall of Fame.

"This," La Russa said, "was never part of the dream."

La Russa, always methodical, had steeled himself for disappointment in the days leading up to the voting and Monday announcement by a 16-member committee. So when he got the call at 8:30 a.m. that he was going in — a unanimous selection, along with contemporaries Bobby Cox and Joe Torre — taken aback would be a vast understatement.

"Stunned," he said.

And, apparently, a bit uncomfortable.

"I will honestly, categorically state I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable being part of that club," he said.

Among celebratory calls was one to his sister, Eva Fojaco, the closest of a couple of dozen relatives who still live in the Tampa Bay area. Many of them are already planning to head to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the July 27 ceremony.

"We're all so excited," Fojaco said, fighting back tears during a midafternoon call. "I can't even tell you what I feel."

La Russa, 69, was known for his intense personality and innovative methods, specifically for a then somewhat revolutionary handling of relievers on a matchup basis. Though he repeated his claim Monday that he was just doing what made sense, his mark on the game was indelible.

"The impact he's had on the game, all the different things he's done regarding the usage of the bullpen, lineups, situations … innovatively speaking, he has had as much influence as maybe any manager possibly," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Then the record and the World Series on top of that."

Realizing he wasn't going to make it as a player — with, he jokes, plenty of suggestions from his own coaches — La Russa started to plan for life after baseball. He earned a law degree from Florida State (to go with an industrial management degree from USF) during the offseason and then passed the Florida Bar with an eye toward opening a practice, probably in Tampa.

But La Russa had enjoyed managing in the minor leagues, and when he got the first of what he considers several doses of "good fortune," the chance to manage the Chicago White Sox at age 34, he found a new career path.

He lasted 6½ seasons — "The stupidest thing I ever did was letting him get fired," Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said Monday — then went on to Oakland, where he won three pennants and a World Series championship in 10 seasons, and then to St. Louis where he won two more championships, retiring, surprisingly, after the second in 2011.

"I never had a bad day, and I always had a good situation," La Russa said. "I don't know any other manager that can say that."

La Russa labels himself "a grinder," routinely deflecting credit to his team and his organization, insisting his personal success is the product of numerous influences, such as hometown hero Al Lopez — the only other Tampa Bay native in the Hall (Wade Boggs moved to Tampa at age 11) — legendary Cardinals instructor George Kissell, manager John MacNamara and others.

Monday, he went further back, to growing up in Ybor City and West Tampa, spending hours, even full days, playing ball at Cuscaden and MacFarlane parks, playing ball with his dad and sometimes his mom, going on to star at Jefferson High and play American Legion ball with future big leaguers Lou Piniella and Ken Suarez, and always aspiring to be better, to dream bigger.

"It started when I was a kid," La Russa said, "and my parents were the ones that started it."

Come next summer, it will be reality. He'll thank his wife and daughters, for putting up with all the sacrifices, and the coaches and others who helped him along the way. He will look around, specifically at the Hall of Famers who will be seated on the stage behind him, and then, just maybe, he said he'll realize he really does belong.

"If you're a baseball fanatic, then playing in the big leagues, maybe part of a championship, that was a dream, and (I) pursued it. Sometimes they come true," he said. "But never, ever was the Hall of Fame part of that dream. Never."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

time line

Oct 4, 1944: Anthony La Russa Jr. is born in Tampa and raised in Ybor City and West Tampa.

 

May 10, 1963: Eighteen-year-old La Russa, a Jefferson High graduate, makes his major league debut at shortstop with Kansas City.

 

1968-1971: La Russa appears sporadically as a utility player for the now-Oakland Athletics. He's traded to the Atlanta Braves late in the 1971 season.

 

April 6, 1973: In his final major league game as a player, La Russa appears as a pinch runner for the Chicago Cubs. For his career, La Russa appears in 132 games, with a lifetime batting average of .199 and no home runs.

 

1978: La Russa graduates from Florida State University law school; admitted to Florida Bar in 1980.

 

Aug. 2, 1979: La Russa begins major league managing career with the Chicago White Sox.

 

1983: White Sox win AL West title. La Russa voted American League Manager of the Year.

 

June 20, 1986: White Sox fire La Russa. In eight seasons with Chicago, he went 522-510.

 

July 3, 1986: La Russa hired to manage Oakland A's.

 

1988: Oakland wins 104 games in regular season, and La Russa wins second Manager of the Year award. In World Series, Oakland loses to Los Angeles Dodgers in five games.

 

1989: In a World Series interrupted by an earthquake, La Russa and Oakland sweep the San Francisco Giants.

 

1990: La Russa and A's appear in their third consecutive World Series; they're swept by the Cincinnati Reds.

 

1992: La Russa wins third AL Manager of the Year award.

 

1996: La Russa leaves Oakland; succeeds Joe Torre as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. As Oakland manager, La Russa goes 798-673.

 

2002: La Russa wins Manager of the Year award for a record fourth time.

 

2004: La Russa pilots Cardinals to their first World Series appearance since 1987. They lose in four games to the Boston Red Sox.

 

2006: Cardinals win their first World Series under La Russa, defeating the Detroit Tigers in five games.

 

2011: La Russa wins his second World Series with St. Louis, and third overall, defeating the Texas Rangers in seven games. Three days later, he retires as St. Louis' manager.

Compiled by Times researcher John Martin

Tampa's Tony La Russa elected to baseball's Hall of Fame 12/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 10:11am]

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