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Tony La Russa's Offseason Lifesaving

Sam Whiting; San Francisco Chronicle

It started with a stray cat crossing the field during an Oakland A's game in 1990. Now Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) has 20 employees, 700 volunteers and a $3 million budget.

The National League Manager of the Year would rather spend his offseason at home in Alamo, matchmaking pets with people, than chasing a golf ball around the Arizona desert like most of his cohorts.

Last month ARF topped off a huge new complex that will open next year in Walnut Creek. To fund it, La Russa, 57, and his wife, Elaine, will hold their 12th annual Stars to the Rescue benefit at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 11. Tickets are $300, $100 and $75 at (925) 943- 7469.

On pets at home.

Right now we have three dogs, nine cats and a rabbit. They are all rescues, and each has its own story of how it came into our home.

On dogs and cats living together.

It's a great scene. You sit there and you've got cats walking all over you. That's the mark of being an animal rescuer. You've got to have some cat hair somewhere. We have a poodle and a lab/terrier mix. He patrols the house and is everybody's buddy. The latest one is a Chihuahua.

On growing up without animals.

We didn't have dogs at the house and I'd ask why, and it turns out my mom, when she was younger, got bit by a cat and they -couldn't catch the cat, so she had to go through those two weeks of rabies injections in the stomach. It traumatized her so much she had this phobia about dogs and cats. As I was growing up and -didn't understand I would drive her nuts - "I need a dog. I need a dog."

On making up for lost time.

Elaine and I have been together almost 30 years, and the first thing we shared was this love of animals.

On becoming an activist.

I can remember when our tax forms were four figures. We -didn't even get to 10 grand, and we would take a portion of that - $25 here, $30 there - we were into all the animal issues.

On the inspiration for ARF.

We're playing the Yankees on a Friday night, here in Oakland, big crowd, this is 1990, the third year in a row that we're going to be champions. A cat runs onto the field. It's one of the feral cats from the Coliseum. Runs all around, goes toward right field and panics. The cat walks in front of me and into the dugout. I open the door, it goes in the bathroom, close the door, finish the game.

On taking action.

First thing Saturday morning, I went down to the Oakland animal shelter and the guy says, "Tony, we just -don't have any room. The cat is going to come in the front door, be euthanized and out the back." I took the cat to Contra Costa County, and the same problem here. One of our volunteers took the cat. We named her Evie after Evie Haas.

There was a need, so we started ARF as a small animal-rescue organization with no facilities.

On Stars to the Rescue.

Because of what I do for a living, I always had an inroad for athletes and entertainers. That January of '92, we did our first (concert). We went out and asked John Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater, who was an A's fan, and Chris Isaak, Mickey Thomas from the Starship. We've never paid entertainers a dime. We'll make $200,000 and have expenses of $15,000. This year we have Chicago. And Robert Cray, a terrific blues vocalist. That ain't bad, is it?

On getting razzed by ballplayers for being a cat lover.

We have players that are hunters, so there's this running thing that they throw their hunting magazines on my desk with a deer being sighted. So I'll go out and tear it up in front of them or throw food on it.

On commuting to St. Louis to manage the Cardinals.

What happens during the season is my wife and daughters (Bianca, 23, and Devon, 20) stay here and I go to St. Louis for ball, then I come back on off days. When I have a Monday off, I'll come home Sunday night, spend Monday and take the redeye back to St. Louis.

On getting homesick.

I miss them all equally. But I know who misses me more: the animals.

On cat dander.

At one time I did get an allergy when I was with the A's. I took the test. We thought it might be cats, and I was already told if I'm allergic to cats, I'm moving out. The cats aren't moving out. They're a part of the family more than I am. It turned out to be something else.

On getting over the baseball season.

This season the loss to the Giants was the toughest one that I had experienced. I've managed 20-something years, been to nine postseasons, got to the World Series three times. But this one was the worst of all.

On the star power of Darren Baker.

People are fascinated by kids and animals. If I'm in our dugout and I could have our little Chihuahua Twiggy there, I would have attracted almost as much attention as Darren did.

E-mail Sam Whiting at swhiting@sfchronicle.com.
(Published January 5, 2003, San Francisco Chronicle)

 

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