The tributes to Tony LaRussa are piling up today, after his retirement caught most folks by surprise. He won a third World Series championship last week, and the next time we see him might be the day he walks into Cooperstown.
He is being remembered for the numbers – 2,728 wins – and should be. Only two men in history managed more games, Connie Mack and John McGraw.
I’ll always remember him for a small kindness to a young m anager, Don Wakamatsu.
It was midway through the 2010 season, and Wakamatsu had gone from superb rookie manager in 2009 to something of a pariah with the Seattle Mariners not quite three months into his second year as a manager. There was the flash-fire retirement of Ken Griffey Jr., the dugout confrontation with Chone Figgins and the increasing lack of support from the front office.
The Mariners were in St. Louis for an interleague series with the Cardinals and, sitting in Wakamatsu’s office before a game, LaRussa’s name came up. Wakamatsu said he’d talked to veteran managers over the years – Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson – but would love to talk to LaRussa.
I knew LaRussa only as a visiting writer, but he’d always been cooperative and friendly and we had a comfortable relationship. I walked out on to the field and found him near the Cardinals dugout, watching batting practice. I asked if he had a minute, he did, and I told him what Wak had said.
Tony said he’d watched Wakamatsu from a distance, liked the way he handled the game and himself. He said his wife was out of town that week, and that after games he spent an hour reading and enjoying a glass of wine before heading home. If Wakamatsu wanted to join him, it would be his pleasure.
I passed that on to Wakamatsu, and the two men got together that night. It meant an awful lot to Wakamatsu, and to me. When I thanked LaRussa before Seattle left town, he was gracious.
“It was a pleasure getting to know Don,” he said. “I hope they’re patient in Seattle.”
They weren’t. But that’s another story.