LaRussa wins, while learning all about NL

The Cincinnati Enquirer

SAN DIEGO - Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Tony LaRussa does not have all the answers. Not nearly. Not yet.

The new manager of the St. Louis Cardinals is still on his fact-finding tour of the National League. He has developed some strong impressions, but few firm convictions. He fancies himself a sponge, not a sage.

'I don't feel that I've got a handle on our club like I hope to in the next couple years,'' LaRussa said Friday afternoon. ''I definitely don't have the kind of handle that you need. I'm on edge all the time, trying to stay with it and learn from each experience.''

One win away from the League Championship Series, LaRussa's public position is that he is still a Work In Progress as a National League manager. Though his image is heavy on arrogance, the essential Tony LaRussa is a mass of insecurities.

This is LaRussa's sixth trip to the postseason since 1983, and he has reached the playoffs with three different clubs. In some ways, this season has been his crowning achievement.

He was right again

He has won in his first year in a new league, and it was hardly a honeymoon season. In order to set a team-first tone, LaRussa was obliged to cut past-prime Cardinal icon Ozzie Smith down to human proportions.

Royce Clayton played ahead of the Hall of Fame shortstop, and Smith's hard feelings festered for much of the season. If the Cardinals had not won, there was a lot of potential for unpleasantness.

LaRussa took on his team's most popular player - much as he had done in Oakland with Jose Canseco - and prevailed for two reasons: No. 1, he was motivated by the best interests of the ballclub; No. 2, he was right.

LaRussa does not manage by formulae or figures so much as by feel. Baseball is a different game in the National League because of the designated hitter and the dimensions of the ballparks, but some things are eternal. The best managers make their strategic decisions based not on some standardized ''book,'' but on the day's relevant information.

What kind of stuff do the starting pitchers have that night? Is it therefore wise to play for an early run, or short-sighted to give up outs when a big inning might develop? How well is the ball carrying? How harsh is the sun? How well does Club X defend the sacrifice bunt? How reliable is Player Y at getting the bunt down?

Game within the game

In his thirst for useful knowledge, LaRussa's eyes take in everything. He is changing clothes after Friday's workout at Jack Murphy Stadium, responding thoughtfully to questions, and simultaneously following the Baltimore-Cleveland playoff game on a small television across the room.

Cleveland slugger Jim Thome fouls off a sacrifice attempt to run the count to 0-2, and LaRussa winces. When Thome then grounds into a double play, LaRussa's look says that justice has prevailed. Despite his American League roots, he is at heart an Inside Baseball guy. Or, as he calls it: The Little Game.

''I enjoy the National League because the value of fundamental things add up to a winning difference a lot of times,'' he said. ''Sometimes, in the American League, you can get overwhelmed.

''One of the advantages that we had in Oakland, in addition to having good players, was that it was one of the few ballparks that was slanted toward the pitchers - especially at night. That means you could play the Little Game there and have it mean something.''

LaRussa's A's excelled at making one-run leads last, and so do the Cardinals. Reliever Dennis Eckersley comes in for a lot of the credit here. Some, surely, belongs to the manager.

''The big part of this year was getting to know our players and the players in the league,'' Tony LaRussa said. ''That's so much more important than strategy is.''

''How long does it take to get a good handle on a new league?'' LaRussa is asked.

''I don't know,'' he said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 5, 1996.