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Cards' La Russa shows passion in managing four-legged pals

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 felines.

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 home.

"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 people.

"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 right."

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, everything's OK."

John McGrath: 253-597-8742, ext. 6154
(Published November 13th, 2002, The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA)


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