The Bay Area press assembled at the Oakland Coliseum on July 3, 1986, fully expecting to meet the new field manager of the Athletics. What they met was a man for all seasons.

Oh, Tony La Russa was eminently qualified to lead the A's back to respectability. During his nine-plus years in the Oakland dugout, the team won four division titles, three American League pennants and a World Series championship.

If La Russa proved his mettle in Oakland, he stamped his ticket to baseball's Hall of Fame during 16 years in St. Louis. That era ended Monday when La Russa, a Blackhawk resident and one of Contra Costa County's most visible figures, announced his retirement three days after winning the third World Series of his managerial career.

But it was apparent 25 years ago -- before he'd been loved on by George Will in the book "Men at Work," and before the Animal Relief Foundation was a gleam in a puppy's eye -- that La Russa had interests beyond the playing field.

For starters, he had a law degree, earned over eight baseball offseasons during his time as a minor league player attempting, with little success, to earn a major league job. Moreover, he was certified, having passed the bar exam. First try.

"I was always a good guesser," he said at that inaugural news conference in Oakland.

He was multilingual, fluent in English, Spanish and able to understand Italian, "if you talk slow enough."

He was polished and articulate enough to have appeared on TV's "To Tell the Truth." You could look it up.


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He had an abiding interest in leadership. He would develop an interest in dance, performing for several years in the Oakland Ballet's holiday season rendition of "The Nutcracker."

Then there was the May 1990 night when La Russa rescued a cat that had wandered onto the field during a game. Dismayed to discover there wasn't a no-kill animal shelter in the East Bay to which he could deliver the stray, he began to brainstorm. ARF, created in 1991, is the result.

"I've been fortunate enough to partner with Tony since 1993," said Elena Bicker, ARF's executive director. "He's an amazing individual. His leadership qualities transcend sports to animal welfare, community involvement. There's this image of him as being this big sports celebrity star. I think he's a true renaissance man."

So does De La Salle High School football coach Bob Ladouceur.

"He has friends in all areas of society who are in leadership positions," Ladouceur said. "He has a real keen interest in what has made them successful. He has friends in the military, friends in politics, a lot of football coaches, basketball coaches."

Ladouceur first reached out to La Russa to invite him, through an intermediary, to a year-end football banquet. It was as if La Russa had been expecting the call.

"He called me and started quoting stuff that had been written about us in the paper from long ago," Ladouceur said. "He knew our philosophy, my philosophy without me knowing him. It shocked me. He just kind of gathers information. He's a real student of success and achievement. He's never stopped learning."

ARF presented La Russa with a substantial learning curve. The nonprofit began in a small Concord location. Thanks to fundraising efforts that include the annual Stars to the Rescue gala, which typically features appearances by comedians, rock stars, former A's players and Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger-level celebrities, the foundation now has a gleaming facility in Walnut Creek.

"He's kind of like the Bill Graham Presents of the animal world," Bicker said.

What he's not is the guy you'd assume him to be from the outside looking in.

"He's truly such a big marshmallow," Bicker said. "You put a kitten or a puppy in his lap and he gets giddy."

He enjoys comedy. Seriously, folks.

"If you get in the car with Tony, what's most often on the radio is comedy," Bicker said.

If not comedy, she said, then music -- mainly classic rock and country. Accounts of La Russa's retirement news conference in St. Louis mentioned his joking reference to opening a book store. It's not necessarily a joke.

"He says if you have a book, you're never without a friend," Bicker said. "He keeps a great library here at ARF. The staff is always raiding it."

The question isn't whether he'll have a career after managing, but which one(s) he'll choose.

"You can't mention anybody that he doesn't know or hasn't met," Ladouceur said. "It's kind of like that Kipling poem. He can walk with kings, yet he hasn't lost his common touch."

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LA RUSSA,
By the numbers
5,097
Games managed, second all-time
2,728
Regular season wins, third all-time
14
Seasons his teams qualified for the postseason, third all-time
3
World titles won, two with St. Louis, one with Oakland
500
At least 500 wins with three teams: White Sox, A's and Cardinals
1
Manager to win a World Series in his final season, La Russa