ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay area product who has had the most success in the major leagues earned his acclaim — and his place in the Hall of Fame — by compiling 3,010 hits.
The person second to Wade Boggs on the Tampa Bay Times’ top 10 list got there with just 35.
But it was what Tony La Russa did after an undistinguished and unsuccessful playing career that has made him such a success, as well as a Cooperstown enshrinee — winning 2,799 games as a manager, more than anyone in baseball history but Connie Mack.
La Russa, a Jefferson High graduate, returns home this weekend in an unexpected encore to his career, going back into the White Sox dugout at age 76, nine years after he left the Cardinals and 42 years after he started managing in Chicago.
La Russa has won three World Series championships, with Oakland in 1989 and St. Louis in 2006 and ‘11.
If he wins another with the White Sox, who come to Tropicana Field with the American League’s second-best record behind the Rays and a double-digit Central Division lead, he will become the first manager to do so with three different teams.
La Russa has managed at the Trop twice before, his Cardinals sweeping the Rays in a 2005 series and dropping two of three in 2011. He joked Thursday about the length of his ticket request list, with dozens of relatives and friends excited for the chance to watch him work (though he unexpectedly saw some when he was in Tampa last week to attend funeral services for his brother-in-law, Victor Fojaco).
“It’ll be good to see them, and they’re all coming,” La Russa said. “All you have to do is concentrate and not get distracted. If I was playing, it would be an issue, but I just sit there and watch. That’s different.”
Also, in typical La Russa winning-is-all-that-matters style, he said: “I just hope we’re playing the bottom of the ninth. If they’re Tampa Bay fans, they’re upset. If they’re Sox and Tony fans, then they’re happy.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash, who also grew up in Tampa, said La Russa’s place in the game is on sacred ground. “There’s a handful of Tampa guys that have just really made their mark in major-league baseball,” Cash said, “and he’s got to be at the top of the list.”
Here is our attempt at listing Tampa Bay’s top 10 big-league successes (based on attending an area high school):
1. Wade Boggs, 3B
Key stats: 3,010 hits, 30th all time; 5 AL batting titles; 12 straight All-Star appearances, 6 top 13 league MVP finishes, 91.4 WAR rating
Key reason: Plant High graduate played 18 seasons, finishing with hometown Devil Rays, literally hitting his way to the majors, then the Hall, getting 92 percent of the vote in 2005.
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2. Tony La Russa, INF/manager
Key stats: 2,799 wins in 35 seasons as manager with White Sox, A’s, Cardinals, second-most all time, as are his 5,219 games managed; won 3 World Series
Key reason: Jefferson High grad had a .199 average as a player but a .536 winning percentage as a manager. Known for innovating strategy, reshaping bullpen usage. Inducted into Hall in 2014.
3. Al Lopez, C/manager
Key stats: Was 1,410-1,004 (.584) managing Indians for six years and White Sox for 11, taking each to the World Series. Also played 19 seasons as catcher, hitting .261, making two All-Star teams, finishing top 25 in league MVP voting six times.
Key reason: El Senor was the first star to come out of Tampa, one of the nicest men in the game, and the first of the area’s three Hall of Famers, inducted in 1977.
4. Fred McGriff, 1B
Key stats: 493 homers in 19-year career, including 10 with 30-plus, making two stops with hometown Devil Rays; 52.6 WAR rating.
Key reason: Though short of 500-home run plateau, Jefferson High product’s consistency and steroids-free reputation during tainted era makes his performance stand out.
5. Lou Piniella, OF/manager
Key stats: Hit .291 during 18-season playing career, last 11 with Yankees, winning two championships. Has 1,835 wins, 16th-most all time, in 23 seasons managing five teams (including Rays), winning one World Series.
Key reason: Combination of playing and managing success have Jesuit High product in consideration of Hall of Fame committee election. Plus, he often put on a show.
6. Gary Sheffield, INF/OF
Key stats: 509 homers, 26th all time, and 1,676 RBIs, 30th most, over 22-season career; 2,689 hits; six top-10 league MVP finishes, 60.5 WAR rating
Key reason: Hillsborough High product was considered one of most fierce and feared hitters of his era.
7. Bill Freehan, C
Key stats: Hit .262 with 200 homers in 15 seasons with Tigers, made 11 All-Star teams, had 3 top-7 league MVP finishes; 44.8 WAR rating.
Key reason: Bishop Barry High (now St. Petersburg Catholic) product, who died Thursday, was a Tigers icon and cornerstone of 1968 championship team.
8. Dwight Gooden, RHP
Key stats: Was 194-112, 3.51 with 2,293 strikeouts (58th all time) over 16 seasons, including brief Rays stint; 52.9 WAR rating.
Key reason: Hillsborough High product looked to be one of the best ever during blazing start (17-9, 2.60, 276 K’s as a rookie; 24-4, 1.53, 268 K’s follow-up) and was 132-53, 2.91 through eight seasons before career faded due to drug issues.
9. Steve Garvey, 1B
Key stats: Hit .294 with 2,599 hits and 272 homers over 19 seasons; won 1974 NL MVP award, had 4 other top 10 finishes; made 10 All-Star teams; 38.1 WAR.
Key reason: Chamberlain High product had good enough stats and postseason success to get some Hall of Fame consideration, but never enough.
10. Luis Gonzalez, OF
Key stats: Hit .283 with 2,591 hits, 354 homers, 1,439 RBIs in 19 seasons; made 5 All-Star teams; 51.6 WAR
Key reason: Debate between Gonzalez and fellow Jefferson High product Tino Martinez has raged for years, and remains a very close call. Gonzalez has better stats; Martinez more World Series rings (4-1).
Just missed: Tino Martinez, Kenny Rogers
Also worth mentioning: Carl Everett, Howard Johnson, Brad Radke, Denard Span
For future consideration: Pete Alonso, Kevin Cash
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