Former A's manager Tony La Russa, who was unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday by the 16-member expansion era committee, said it was a gem of a day because of the company he is keeping. Elected with La Russa were former managers Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
"They both share so many common things about managing," La Russa told this newspaper. "Things about the way they competed and got their teams ready to play."
La Russa's stint as the A's manager from 1986-95 was the middle stop of his career. He guided the Chicago White Sox from 1979-86 and the St. Louis Cardinals from 1996 until his retirement in 2011.
In looking back, it wasn't Torre and Cox to whom La Russa felt the closest bond. He shared that with former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly and Detroit's Jim Leyland, who retired at the end of the 2013 season.
"I've always been fascinated by seeing how guys run games," La Russa said. "You look at how hard teams play for them. Tom Kelly and Jim Leyland are my two closest friends in baseball. I was talking to Tom today and told him the reason I'm here today is that I never had a day where I wasn't in a perfect situation."
La Russa was hired by the A's midway through the 1986 season, less than three weeks after being fired by the White Sox. The A's were 31-52, but they went 45-34 the rest of the way under La Russa. Oakland went 81-81 in 1987, and in '88 won 104 games en route to its first of three consecutive World Series appearances.
"Tony is an old-school guy, but he was also open to innovation," said Wally Haas, whose father, Walter A. Haas Jr., owned the A's from 1980 until his death near the end of the 1995 season. "My father always said that once he met Tony La Russa, he didn't want anyone else managing his club."
That was put to the test after the 1994 season when the Boston Red Sox tried to lure La Russa away. The elder Haas, in failing health, wanted La Russa to stay. La Russa remained in Oakland, passing on a chance to manage one of baseball's iconic franchises. He wound up getting another iconic franchise when he took over the Cardinals in 1996.
La Russa's innovation was as legendary as his loyalty. Before the 1987 season, he and pitching coach Dave Duncan made Dennis Eckersley a reliever after years as a starter. Eckersley fought the change but became one of baseball's best closers, saving 320 games for the A's.
The year before, in one of his first moves as the A's manager, La Russa took little-used pitcher Dave Stewart and made him a regular in the rotation. Stewart went 9-5 for the A's in '86, then won 20 or more games the next four seasons for Oakland.
"He's more than deserving," Stewart said upon hearing the Hall of Fame results. "He was a player's manager, someone who had everybody's respect. There were some big personalities on those teams, Jose (Canseco), Dave Parker, myself, Eck. Tony spent a lot of time communicating with every player, not just a certain group. I think what made him a Hall of Famer was his preparation. I don't think he ever entered a game where he wasn't prepared."
If anyone owes La Russa a debt, it is Mark McGwire. In 1987, McGwire was the last player to make the A's roster. Twenty-three years later, in 2010, his name sullied by baseball's steroids scandal, McGwire received new life in the game when La Russa made him the Cardinals' hitting coach.
"I'm just thrilled for Tony," said McGwire, now the Dodgers' hitting coach. "He was never one to sit down at the end of the day and say 'That's the best I can do.' He always was looking for ways to be better. He was able to get the best out of everybody."
Under La Russa, the A's went to the World Series in 1988, '89 and '90, winning in '89 against the Giants. They won the American League West in 1992.
La Russa was an infielder during his playing days, but he blew out his shoulder shortly after being drafted, and his playing career never amounted to much. He lasted six seasons and hit .199. He was 34 years old when the White Sox made him their manager in mid-1979.
He took the Cardinals to three World Series, winning in 2006 and 2011. At his side in Oakland and St. Louis was pitching coach Duncan.
"It's great news about Tony," Duncan said. "The one quality I saw as a manager that stood out to me was his ability to separate every day and approach every day as if it was something special. You know, with most people every now and then, you have a bad day and aren't into what's going on. That never happened with Tony. It was like a relentless pursuit of perfection on a daily basis."
Tony La Russa draws praise from his former A's players.www.mercurynews.com/sports
Most wins by a manager
Baseball's all-time leaders in managerial victories:
1. Connie Mack 3,731
2. John McGraw 2,763
3. Tony La Russa 2,728
4. Bobby Cox 2,504
5. Joe Torre 2,326
6. Sparky Anderson 2,194
7. Bucky Harris 2,158
8. Joe McCarthy 2,125
9. Walter Alston 2,040
10. Leo Durocher 2,008