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.
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.
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.
Following the Cardinals nearly doubled my baseball knowledge, as I began paying close attention to the NL for the first time in my life at 20 years old.
And then the best season of my life (until the Rangers made it to the World Series last year, of course) happened: 1998. Texas made it back to the playoffs, and McGwire joined Sammy Sosa in an epic battle to break Roger Maris's all-time home-run record for a season. Sure, the subsequent admission by McGwire that he took steroids and speculation that Sosa was doing the same puts a dark cloud over that season, but when it was happening, it was baseball at its finest.
Of course, the Rangers made the playoffs for a third time the next year, but, for a third time, they were embarrassed by the Yankees.
Thankfully, La Russa led the Cards back to the postseason in three-straight seasons from '00 to '02 after a three-year hiatus, losing the NLCS twice. And while it started becoming clear that '01 would be McGwire's final season, once again fate (aka: the baseball gods) were looking out for me, as 21-year-old rookie third baseman and outfielder Albert Pujols broke into the league with a major bang. (McGwire did, in fact, call it quits after the '01 season and would later be named Cardinals hitting coach in early 2010.)
Led by MVP-candidate Pujols, La Russa attempted in '04 to join former Reds and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson as the only skippers to win a World Series in both leagues. However, St. Louis faced a red-hot Boston Red Sox club that had just rallied from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees, and La Russa was swept for a second time.
Redemption came two years later, when La Russa led an 83-win team to a World Series championship over buddy Jim Leyland and the Tigers. Although the Cards had the best player in baseball in Pujols, a true ace in Chris Carpenter and a young pitcher named Adam Wainwright in the bullpen, the club was made up of a bunch of relative unknowns like Jeff Weaver (Jered's older and much less successful brother), Jason Marquis and World Series MVP David Eckstein.
It was a masterful job of managing by La Russa, who performed a similar magic trick this year not only by getting the Cardinals into the playoffs after he battled shingles during the summer and the club was 10 1/2 games back in late August (when even the team's GM was already apologizing for a failed season), but he somehow maneuvered past the Philadelphia Phillies (the best pitching team in baseball) and Milwaukee Brewers (the best home team in baseball) without Wainwright, who didn't pitch once this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In his 33rd year as a big-league manager, this might have been 64-year-old La Russa's best effort yet. He's unlikely to win NL Manager of the Year (that's likely to go to Gibson), but only one ('88) of his record four awards (tied with Bobby Cox) was won in a year that his team won the pennant, and he's done that six times now.
Sure, La Russa's a quirky guy. Sometimes he bats his pitcher eighth in the lineup for reasons I still don't understand, and he refused to name anyone as his closer for most of the year. He has also developed a reputation for over-managing, with his frequent pitching changes and double switches. (Exhibit A: La Russa set an NLCS record this year with a whopping 28 pitching changes against the Brewers. Of course, he broke his own record of 25 set in '96.)
And some folks still think his reputation as a baseball mastermind is overblown because of that law degree, which obviously doesn't mean La Russa knows anything more about hardball than you or me.
But his accomplishments speak for themselves.
With just 36 more regular season wins, only Connie Mack will have more. And Mack's win total (1,000 more than La Russa) is about as approachable of a record as Cy Young's victories because Mack racked up almost all of those wins in a 50-year stretch as manager and co-owner of the then-Philadelphia A's. La Russa's also won at least 90 games a dozen times, including 100 or more four times.
He's the best manager I've seen since my baseball brain kicked into high gear 25 years ago, and he's undoubtedly one of the best this game has ever seen.
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SHOW ME HOW
Ron Washington may already be one-third of the way to La Russa's number of pennants, but the managerial edge goes to the Cardinals by a mile.
Sure, the series will mostly be determined by the players in between the lines, but baseball has always struck me as the sport in which the manager or head coach plays the biggest role. And if this St. Louis team somehow finds a way to continue to shock the baseball world, rest assured that La Russa will play a prominent role.
Yesterday, ESPN's Buster Olney grabbed a one of my favorite La Russa quotes from a source unwilling to give his name for the record.
From an NL evaluator: "The biggest thing for me is watching La Russa work his magic. You hear it a lot, but it's like he's playing chess and everybody else is playing checkers. He never panics and there is always a plan. He's always innings and games ahead of other coaching staffs. When you hear [Milwaukee Brewers manager] Ron Roenicke say everything worked out right for the Cardinals, well, after a while, doesn't that stop being luck?"