Before he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend, before he is cast in bronze alongside the greatest of all time, Tony La Russa wants Oakland to know just how rotten he feels for lousing things up.
He won one World Series with the A's.
"That is something that will haunt me forever," La Russa says.
He looks back knowing he had Eck and Hendu and Rickey and Stew and the Bash Brothers, all in their glorious primes, and somehow managed to come away with just one ring.
"I just don't think the managing lived up to the quality of the players. I think if I'd done a better job, we could have at least had one more," said La Russa, 69.
Maybe the trip to Cooperstown will cheer him up. When he is enshrined Sunday, the numbers etched on La Russa's plaque will include his 2,728 career victories, a total topped in baseball history only by Connie Mack and John McGraw, inductees into the Hall of Fame class of 1937.
La Russa also won six pennants, led his teams to 12 divisional titles and won a pair of World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals to join Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win World Series in both leagues.
In all, he spent 33 seasons as a big league manager for the Chicago White Sox (1979-86), A's ('86-95) and Cardinals (1996-2011).
Regrets? He had a few.
"It was not uncommon for him to come into the clubhouse after the game and say, 'Fellas, I cost us that game,' " recalled Dave Stewart, a four-time 20-game winner for the A's. "I can't think of one (other) manager that I played for that did that."
Such self-flagellation, even as he walks the steps toward Cooperstown, goes a long way toward explaining how the .199 lifetime hitter wound up here in the first place. La Russa won because the losses ate at him. They consumed him. La Russa won because he figured out how not to lose again.
"I asked him one time, 'What makes you better?' " said Dennis Eckersley, the star reliever. "Tony said, 'I pay better attention than they do.'
"That's what set him apart. He was always going to out-pay-attention you."
Players recall how La Russa made the rounds during batting practice every day, fungo bat in hand. That's de rigueur for managers now, but it wasn't then. The A's manager would float from the infield ... to left field ... to center field ... "and to the guys in right field, and to the pitchers who shagged the balls behind the screen," Stewart said. "He's talking to all those guys. He knew how important communication was."
In truth, it was a reconnaissance mission, a chance for La Russa to gauge the physical and mental status of his men. And if something went amiss, he knew how fix it.
Eckersley remembers. He blew a late lead in Cleveland in 1991, surrendering a two-run home run to Jerry Browne, a light-hitting utility man.
The reliever beat himself up for the entire flight to Baltimore and was still hammering away at his inner punching bag by the time they reached the team hotel. Disgusted, he grabbed the envelope with his room key without looking inside.
It wasn't until he got to the door that he looked inside. There was a note from La Russa. It said: "Eck, you're the best."
"What an effect that had. I had a tear in my eye," Eckersley says now, still shaking his head. "I was crushed because I'd given up that home run. And Tony, he knew how upset I got.
"I'm down, and that note just lifted me up. To me, that's managing, man."
La Russa wrote a lot of notes. Most of them, he kept for himself.
"That was him. Taking notes, writing things on the scorecard," Stewart said. "I never knew what those notes were, but it turned out those were notes from his first day of managing until his last day of managing. And he would recall those things, little things like the tendency of another manager, and it would give him an edge."
"I watched him on the planes going into every city. He had his game plan, his notes, he was reading all the time," recalled Mark McGwire, the power-hitting first baseman. "He had sheets. He had all of his numbers."
The notes helped him solve problems, even if it took a while. Two decades after losing his last World Series with the A's, he finally stumbled upon what else he should have done differently in 1990.
La Russa was at a friend's birthday party a few years ago and shared a table with Willie Davis and Jerry Kramer, two star players from the Green Bay Packers glory days. The football stars started swapping stories about Vince Lombardi's leadership.
Kramer recalled how the Packers coach greeted them at camp a year after winning the Super Bowl by demanding that they do it again. Lombardi's line: "Be part of history."
La Russa's heart sank.
"Oh, man. That was it," he says now. "If I had been that smart and stood up in front of the room in 1990 and really got on the stump about winning two consecutive World Series, I think that would have made a difference. The frame of mind, I didn't get it right."
La Russa said he knew something didn't smell right with the '90 team but didn't want to have what he called a "chew-ass meeting" because that risked undermining the team's confidence. Instead he said nothing.
"I'm sick with myself for that. We walked into that World Series thinking, 'We're the mighty A's' and Cincinnati just beat us to the punch," La Russa said. "I should have found a way to stay on course."
Two years earlier, against the Dodgers, Kirk Gibson's ninth-inning home run against Eckersley put the A's in a 1-0 hole they could not climb out from. In Game 2 they were facing a red-hot Orel Hershiser, who had just ended his record-setting stretch of 59 scoreless innings pitched. Quickly it was a 2-0 hole.
La Russa laments that his team had been expecting to play the Mets rather than the beat-up Dodgers, that they weren't mentally prepared. "I think that our frame of mind, we missed a click or two when it was the Dodgers," La Russa said. "And that's my responsibility."
A's players of that era have a rebuttal for La Russa's hand-wringing: Hogwash.
"It wasn't his fault," third baseman Carney Lansford said. "I talk to Tony a lot and know he blames himself for things he could have done or said, but the bottom line is that the players have to get it done and we didn't."
The A's won it all in 1989, beating the team across the Bay. But in two other trips to the World Series, they went 1-8 against teams with inferior rosters.
In either case, it's hard to imagine that a hit-and-run here or there could have made much difference. The Dodgers outscored the A's 21-11 in the series; the Reds outscored them 22-8.
As quick as he was to accept blame, La Russa is even quicker to dole out credit -- to players, to ownership, to his coaching staff. His praise extends to White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who once fired him in Chicago.
La Russa cut his teeth as a manager with the White Sox starting in 1979. He was 35, making him the youngest manager in the game, but even after a few successful years La Russa clashed with general manager Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who wanted him out.
Reinsdorf agreed to La Russa's dismissal, but before he did he put in a call to A's president Roy Eisenhardt. "I said, 'Things aren't working out here. If we let him go, will you hire him?' " Reinsdorf told MLB.com in December. "He said, 'In a heartbeat.' "
La Russa turned things around quickly in Oakland, going 81-81 in 1987 for the A's first non-losing season in seven years. A year later, they were in the World Series.
He stayed in Oakland until after the '95 season, after the Haas family sold the team. But his former A's players will always remember what he did for the franchise.
Who can blame them?
"He hated it when George Will called him 'The Genius' but he deserved some of that," Eckersley said. "He would try to pooh-pooh it, but he was ahead of his time. He's not overrated, believe me. He's the whole package."
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