John McGrath; The News Tribune - Tacoma
Tony La Russa owns a World Series ring. He's won eight division titles,
three pennants and an unprecedented five Manager of the Year awards.
And yet his proudest moment in baseball might've been a save he made
without throwing a pitch.
During an otherwise forgotten 1990 game between the New York Yankees
and La Russa's Oakland Athletics, a stray cat wandered onto the field
and eluded capture by umpires not inclined to exercise patience with clever
At first the scene was the stuff of a video-board bloopers video, but
when La Russa finally coaxed the animal into the dugout, he realized how
utterly terrified it was.
La Russa named the cat "Evie," and made plans to put it in
an abandoned-pet shelter, only to learn that if an adoption wasn't imminent
after a few days, nobody in the shelter could guarantee Evie's survival.
The homeless cat who interrupted a game became Tony La Russa's cue to
make a difference. In 1991, La Russa and his wife, Elaine, created the
Animal Rescue Foundation - ARF - a private, non-profit organization based
in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Employing 20 full-time staffers and 600 volunteers in 50 states, ARF
last year found homes for 1,185 dogs, cats and small animals abandoned
in California's Contra Costa County.
What was conceived as a humble shelter with a no-kill policy now is looming
as a 39,000 square-foot stray pet palace scheduled to open in July. Animals
will be given care and comfort while they await a better life in a permanent
"We want to make it a Bay Area destination point," La Russa
said over his cell phone the other day. "Sort of like Alcatraz, or
the cable cars."
La Russa is especially enthusiastic about an ARF program that enables
abandoned pets to serve as companions for everybody from shut-ins and
at-risk teens to those with mental and physical disabilities.
"It's all about rescue," La Russa said. "We're all familiar
with the notion of people rescuing pets. But the really exciting thing
is what we're finding out on the flip side - how pets can help rescue
"There's no machine involved. There's no pills. It's just this magical
interaction that takes place when people in need are matched up with animals
whose loyalty is unconditional."
No manager is more dedicated to details - more prone to do homework -
than La Russa, a Florida State law-school product who is the first licensed
attorney to manage in the big leagues since the Yankees' Miller Huggins.
But the offseason is when La Russa really gets intense with fund-raising
functions on behalf of his foundation.
Among other events, La Russa annually appears at an autograph-signing
show and memorabilia auction, which this weekend will be held at the Tacoma
Dome Exhibition Hall in conjunction with the Pacific Northwest National
Sportscard and Memorabilia Show.
La Russa will sign autographs for the benefit of ARF on Saturday afternoon
between 2 and 3. Other guests associated with ARF will include Hall of
Famer Al Kaline and Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds (they'll sign
from noon to 2 on Saturday); Mariners third baseman Jeff Cirillo, utility
man Mark McLemore (1:30-3:30 on Saturday), and pitcher Jamie Moyer and
utility man Charles Gipson (noon-2 p.m. on Sunday).
"We might get some other guys from the Mariners," said La Russa,
who has been following Seattle's search for a successor to his longtime
friend Lou Piniella.
Something of an obscurity when he was hired to replace Don Kessinger
with the 1979 White Sox, La Russa pointed out that the anonymity of some
of the Mariners' managerial candidates should not be mistaken for inexperience.
"Bench coaches like Sam Perlozzo and Bob Melvin are asked to do
a lot," La Russa said. "Managers are always calling them into
their office to ask their opinion on something. I know Sam, in particular,
has been a student of the game for years."
Then again, when it comes to managing, it's not necessarily what you
know, but when, where and how you communicate it.
"If there's one misconception fans might have about managers, it's
that too much importance is put on the tactical stuff people like to argue
about and second-guess," he said.
"The main responsibility for a manager is to keep players focused
on baseball, and not allow them to get distracted by the money or stats
or any of those other things. The challenge of managing today - as opposed
to the way it was when I started - is to put the distractions aside, and
play together as a team.
"That's what made the Mariners so fun to watch when they won 116
games. Ichiro Suzuki had a big year, but they were a team. The way they
executed the fundamentals was beautiful to watch. They played the game
La Russa in 2002 produced the best effort of a stellar career, when he
shepherded the Cardinals through the grieving period that followed the
death of starting pitcher Darryl Kile. Mixing and matching and making
do, La Russa won the National League Central title with a arms-by-committee
staff that used 14 starters, and 26 pitchers in all.
And then, after shocking the defending world-champion Diamondbacks in
the Division Series, a World Series quest seemingly chaperoned by destiny
went poof against San Francisco.
"I get home, feeling like hell after we got beat by the Giants,"
La Russa said. "And then see the faces of my pets" - he and
his wife own three dogs and nine cats - "telling me that, really,
John McGrath: 253-597-8742, ext. 6154
(Published November 13th, 2002, The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA)
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