In the World Series Match-Up Between the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals, Don't Dismiss the Impact of Tony La Russa
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.
St. Louis Cardinals Tony La Russa on the field at Busch Stadium yesterday afternoon.
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.
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.
This 1986 Topps baseball card is still one of my all-time faves.
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.
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.
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.