In the World Series Match-Up Between the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals, Don't Dismiss the Impact of Tony La Russa

Categories: Sports

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St. Louis Cardinals
Tony La Russa on the field at Busch Stadium yesterday afternoon.
For whatever reason, my relationship with baseball went from casual to deeply committed bordering on obsessive during the 1986 baseball season. Like most kids growing up in North Texas, my father taught me to love the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks (in that order) -- if for no other reason than because they were our hometown teams. They were the ones we could root for from the stands. And that made perfect sense to me.

Early in the '86 season, my dad was cheering for the New York Yankees -- a club featuring Hall of Fame outfielders Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, southpaw hurler Ron Guidry and first baseman Don Mattingly in his prime. It was NBC's Game of the Week (ahh, the great duo of Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola), and I don't recall who the Yanks were playing that Saturday afternoon, but I remember asking: "Dad, why do you like the Yankees? Aren't the Rangers supposed to be our team?"

"Everyone needs a team to cheer that they don't have to," he replied.

Of course, it didn't help that the Rangers were absolutely dreadful from 1982 to 1985 -- the earliest seasons I can remember, albeit vaguely, since I was ages 5 through 8. Texas lost 58 percent of its games during that four-year stretch and finished dead last in the American League West in '84 and '85. And that was when the West had seven teams. So, yeah, finding a second favorite team sounded like a good idea too.

"What made you choose the Yankees?"

"I was born in New York," my dad explained. Then he told me stories about watching Mickey Mantle at Yankees Stadium as a kid and bragged about the history of what I would soon learn was the game's most storied and successful franchise.

It was settled after that conversation. The Chicago White Sox would be my backup team because, even though I had no memories of living there, I was born in Wheaton, Illinois -- a suburb about 25 miles west of Chicago -- before moving to Richardson as a toddler. Why not the Cubs? Even though they had just missed out on making it to the World Series in '84, they were the NL's version of the Rangers reputation-wise, so that made it an easy choice.

Not the most thought-out decision of my life, but gimme a break. I was only 9.

I did what I could to read up on the White Sox mostly by digging through back issues of Baseball Digest and other baseball publications, since SportsCenter and the Internet weren't exactly options at the time.

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This 1986 Topps baseball card is still one of my all-time faves.
With alarming consistency, I read as much about then-White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who had been at the helm since '79 and led Chicago to an ALCS appearance in '83, as I did about the players.

Sure, Chicago had franchise icons Carlton Fisk, Ozzie Guillen and Harold Baines in the lineup and had aging Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver in the rotation, but La Russa had already begun establishing himself as one of the best skippers in the game at just 41 years old. And he had a coolness factor that I couldn't ignore as a child: a law degree. To me, that translated into baseball smarts. I can't explain why, but, again, I was 9 years old.

So I invested myself into the White Sox that year, along with the Rangers, who greatly improved under new manager Bobby Valentine. Texas finished the season above .500 (87-75) -- good enough for second place in the West in '86 and the team's second most wins in franchise history at the time.

Chicago, on the other hand, was off to a disappointing 26-38 start, and, in June then-general manager Ken Harrelson canned La Russa. Harrelson, who's now the television play-by-play voice for the White Sox (you might be familiar with his home run catch phrase: "You can put it on the board ... yes!"), also fired then-assistant GM and current Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and decided to move Fisk from catcher to left field. Not surprisingly, Harrelson was let go at the end of the season.

Captivated by a contending Rangers club and befuddled that my new team had betrayed me by axing someone I saw as a baseball genius, it was easy to say goodbye to the White Sox for good.

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A few weeks later, La Russa had already landed a new gig, taking over in Oakland for then-manager and current Rangers bench coach Jackie Moore, who led the A's to a 29-44 record, and interim manager Jeff Newman, who was 2-8 in the 10 games he managed.

Oakland had one of the most exciting players at the time -- 21-year-old right fielder Jose Canseco -- so the A's quickly replaced Chicago as my No. 2.

Although Canseco (33 homers and 117 RBI) would win the '86 AL Rookie of the Year Award, it was the next season's AL ROY -- teammate Mark McGwire, who would slug an amazing 49 home runs in '87 to form the "Bash Brothers" duo with Canseco -- that solidified a place in my sports heart for Oakland.

The legend of La Russa exploded in the following years as he led the A's to three-consecutive World Series appearances from '88 to '90. That '88 club would lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers, aided by one of the most memorable World Series home runs of all time by current Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson to steal Game 1 in the bottom of the ninth. That was the first time my fragile little sports heart was broken. (I still tear up when I see footage of Gibson's fist-pumping around the bases while hobbled by two bad knees.)

But Oakland's sweep of the San Francisco Giants the following year more than made up for it, not to mention the Rangers -- led by veterans Pete O'Brien and Charlie Hough and young outfielders Ruben Sierra, Pete Incaviglia and Oddibe McDowell -- were an exciting team in spite of their poor record.

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Following a World Series sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds in '90, Oakland would make another postseason run in 1992 but lost the ALCS to Toronto. After three sub-.500 seasons -- during which my then-hero, McGwire, would miss significant time to injuries -- La Russa bolted in '96 to replace Joe Torre in St. Louis.

La Russa had immediate success, as the Cardinals made it to the postseason for the first time since a World Series loss to the Twins in '87, but I was hesitant to switch teams yet again, especially with my focus on a healthy McGwire posting MVP-caliber numbers (.312 batting average with 52 homers and 113 RBI) in Oakland and, more important, the Rangers' first playoff appearance in franchise history.

Fate seemingly stepped in and took care of my sports conundrum, as McGwire was traded to St. Louis at the trade deadline in '97, having already hit 34 HR with Oakland. He'd hit another 24 with the Cardinals, giving him a new career high of 58. The Cards were clearly my new No. 2, especially since Oakland had become much more of a rival to Texas after the realignment in '94 that shrunk the West down to just four teams.


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19 comments
MBM
MBM

"Sure, the series will mostly be determined by the players in between the lines, but baseball has always struck me as the sport in which the manager or head coach plays the biggest role."

Is this a commonly held belief?  Is this just going to open it up for people to say 'well it can't be football, Switzer won a Super Bowl!'?  Don't know if I buy that baseball managers play the biggest role, don't know enough about hockey to comment on that, seems basketball coaches may have the least impact (but Carlisle and Jackzen may have something to say).  I don't know, but it's interesting...

RTGolden
RTGolden

It might be worth mentioning that, as of July 25th of this year, Larussa was only 51 losses away from being number 3 on the all time losses for managers chart (Connie Mack is also the all time leader in that category)  Compared statistically, Larussa tops Mack with a 58% win ratio vs a 48%.  Seems to be a meaningless stat for managers though, since their careers are generally decades long and can fluctuate with talent levels on the teams they manage.I'd have to agree that Larussa HAD to have known about his sluggers riding the needle.Also have to admit, I've always been a bigger minor league fan than major league, the parks are smaller, allowing greater interaction between team and fans, the atmosphere is more small town than metropolis, and there seems to be a higher degree of pure, simple, love of the game than one finds in the majors.

MushMouth1
MushMouth1

I'll give you that La Russa is a master of cultivating the cult of personality as a manager but I see him losing just as many games by over-managing as he does by making brilliant moves. People,especially his buddies in the national media,remember those and conveniently forget the blunders. Ultimately a manager is only as good as the plays his guys make.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

I still love you Sam. Excellent work.

Rangers in 6.

G_David
G_David

You have to give it to La Russa, if for no other reason than getting to the age of 67 with the same ridiculous haircut. 

just sayin'
just sayin'

I grew up a Yankees fan. Like Sam's, my pop was a Yankees fan, too. Thats a unique thing about baseball. The way it gets passed down from fathers to sons. And like Sam mentioned, when we were kids you only got to see your favorite out of market team maybe once a week if you were lucky. So you kinda had to find a secondary team to get your daily fix. Luckily, in East Texas, WGN was part of the extended basic cable. So even though the Yankees were and still are my team, I was able to watch the Rangers and the Cubs pretty much every day. But holy shit were the 80's a brutal time to like those 3 teams. A few great players but a lot of shitty teams. And if you would have told my 8 year old ass that one day I would watch night games at Wrigley and see a Rangers team that was favored in the World Series, I would have kicked you in the balls and told everyone that you tried to get me into your van.

Brenda Marks
Brenda Marks

Sam -- great piece.  My back up team became the Red Sox while watching the last two games of the 1986 World Series from a bar at 43rd and Broadway.  I agree that Tony LaRussa is and will go down as one of the best managers ever in baseball.  But I'd give him an asterisk -- he presided over the most juiced lineup in baseball steroids history.  Impossible to believe he didn't know what was going on in his own clubhouse.

Rooster
Rooster

Sam - digging your fine work, as always.

TheRealDirtyP1
TheRealDirtyP1

Good strong article Sam. Add this one to the portfolio.

Storm_71
Storm_71

Nice job Sam. I'm hesitant to make a pick for fear of jinxing the Rangers. Can't wait for World Series Ranger baseball tonight.

Boy Wonder
Boy Wonder

Holy Happenstance, Batman! St Louis vs Arlington Team at 3:15 at Jerryworld and St Louis vs Arlington Team across the parking lot at 7:05.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

Damn Sam, throw it down big man.  I lived in KC from 79-90 and loved the Royals, of course I was 5 when they won the 85 world series but I remember beating the Cards vividly.  Upon moving here, Nolan was pitching here and I grew to like the Rangers.  Heck, both teams were perrenial losers so who would care that I had 2 teams.  I was at the Nolan and Brett's last game in Arlington and it was awesome.  I given my heart to these Rangers over the last 21 years, and I really think this is the Rangers year. Rangers in 5 good buddies

Robert Wilonsky
Robert Wilonsky

And for those wondering, Sam will be back later in the day with his Game 1 kick-off, leading into our World Series open thread.

Sturms_Bloody_Rectum
Sturms_Bloody_Rectum

the juice era may have started in the East Bay, Balco, but it was perfected with the Little Red Shoes. The Rangers manager, Uncle Buck DID know of the steroids being used in the clubhouse.

phe_75034
phe_75034

Robert, thank you for seriously upgrading the quality of sports blogging at The Observer by bringing back Sam. He's thoughtful, insightful, entertaining, and puts a great deal of work into his posts.

Sam, welcome back! I am looking forward to your contributions throughout the World Series.

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