Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

Tampa native Tony La Russa inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.

Tony La Russa was doing okay until Sunday afternoon, when he gathered in a room at the Otesaga Hotel with 44 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame whom he and the five other new electees were to soon join.

"All of a sudden you start feeling a little differently," he said.

Worse, when they boarded a bus for the short ride to the induction ceremony site, and again when they turned into the Clark Sports Center and saw nearly 50,000 fans stretched as far as you could see.

Ever since he got word in December of his election, the Tampa native felt "uncomfortable" with the honor because he hadn't been a very good player and didn't think he fit with the 21 other chosen managers.

He thought that after months of thinking, he had finally embraced the proper perspective, but here it was starting to slip away. "You're surrounded by the hall of famers and it starts to get tougher, and then you see the crowd when you arrive and it's real tough," he said.

The words didn't come out during his 17-minute-plus speech exactly as he had written and rehearsed, but he was able to make his point:

Though still uncomfortable with the personal honor, he had come to a resolution to accept it as a representative for the teams he worked for and the people he worked with, from mentors to coaches to players to staff.

"I gave it a lot of thought," he explained in a later interview. "I tried to say it the way I meant it — I don't think I used the phrase, but I was thinking it, it was written to say it, I just didn't say it — but I feel more at peace with being here.

"Not comfortable, because this is the greatest players of all time. And I've always felt that managers who get in are some of the guys like Tommy (Lasorda), ambassadors. I'm just kind of a relentless grinder.

"I'm more at peace if it's understood that it's A's, White Sox, Cardinals and the teachers that I've had. If we're all in this thing together, I'm really happy to represent."

La Russa, 69, was certainly worthy of inclusion. He won 2,728 games, third most all-time, and three World Series championships during his 33 years managing in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, retiring after winning the 2011 title.

He spoke Sunday, as he often does, of the good fortune to get the opportunity to manage in the majors at such a young age, 34, and with so little experience (two years in the minor leagues), and to manage in three organizations where he and his staff had the not-so-common benefit of "total support" from their bosses.

"The more I thought about it and think about it, I've never put my arms around the fact that being lucky is a Hall of Fame credential," he said.

He was generous in his thanks, from the professional — mentioning bosses, players and coaches (especially longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan) from each of the three organizations and lamenting that he couldn't name more — to the personal, starting with his wife, Elaine.

He shared how she was eight months pregnant with their first daughter when he got the unexpected offer to take over as manager of the White Sox in August 1979. Despite the obvious inconveniences, she was understanding that he might never get another opportunity, much as she was the rest of his career.

He also thanked his daughters, Bianca and Devon, for being similarly understanding, though he said he was not happy they were not in attendance Sunday "because of all the animals at home and other commitments."

La Russa didn't seem to be paying much attention to his notes and nearly left out another important, personal part of his speech: his roots and relatives in Ybor City and west Tampa.

He had just recounted how he'd spent 36 years following the sage advice from one of his most cherished mentors, longtime Cardinals instructor George Kissell, who had told him if he was going to go into coaching and/or managing, "you've got to love the game and you've got to want to learn it." He had thanked iconic football coaching buddy Bill Parcells for showing up and started back on "loving and learning" when he looked at his left hand.

"I've got my fingers crossed, because I've done this before where I forget something, and I'm about to forget that before our families started, I was born in Tampa and had a very, very strong baseball and family introduction to our game," La Russa said.

"My mother and dad were the best parents you could have in all respects. And I like to tell her she's my favorite sister and she's my only sister, Eva. And our relatives there, cousins and nieces and nephews, a lot of friends and teammates from Tampa, thanks for being here."

Three hours before the induction, La Russa sat on the veranda behind the picturesque Otesaga, wearing a gray T-shirt with the phrase "The more you sweat in training the less you bleed in battle" on the back, plus gray jeans and flip flops.

He looked relaxed, with a few friends, including Tampa lawyer Scott Tozian, around. Though as usual for La Russa, he was plotting and planning, in this case sorting out the tickets and seating assignments for his family and friends.

The speech was clearly La Russa's least enjoyable part of the weekend and he seemed relieved it was over, though he lamented not making more mention of Roland Hemond and Red Schoendienst, two other mentors.

He made no mention of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, which several of the key players on his teams have been connected to. He did say that in the current game, with big-money contracts and entitled players, leadership was more important because "you have to fight through those distractions and those distorted ideas about what's right."

As he headed off to his first dinner as one of the 306 official members of the Hall, already joking about how much he'll enjoy next year's induction when he's not a newbie, La Russa actually seemed quite, well, comfortable.

"One thing for certain," he said on the stage. "All that buildup for certain has created a total understanding and appreciation of what it means to be elected to the Hall of Fame."

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

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