Sticking to his guns
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
October 23, 2006
This is mano-a-mano in La Russa's old-school baseball world, and as confusing and confounding and inconsistent as his morals are here, there wasn't a moment of hesitation – he was sticking by them.
No, Tony La Russa wasn't winning a World Series that his reputation so desperately needed with some "BS," as he calls it. He wasn't going to get Kenny Rogers, the Detroit Tigers ace, thrown out of Game 2 here Sunday – and likely suspended for the rest of the Series – for having a big smear of what La Russa believed probably was pine tar on his left hand.
In La Russa's world, that would be weak.
"I just don't like to BS," he said Monday.
He stuck to his unpopular guns. No apologies.
La Russa had noticed on video that Rogers had a smear of something on his left hand in recent games. Rogers claimed the mark during Sunday's game was dirt, but La Russa never believed that. And why would he believe the same patch of dirt would appear in the same spot on his hand game after game?
"I don't believe it was dirt," said La Russa. "Didn't look like dirt."
No, it didn't. It looked like pine tar, which pitchers use to improve their grip on the ball and, sometimes, alter its spin. It's not just against the rules; it is seriously against the rules. If La Russa had demanded the umpires inspect Rogers and they found pine tar, he would have been ejected immediately. The rule book also calls for an automatic 10-game suspension.
We'll never know whether it was pine tar or just dirt, as Rogers claimed and Major League Baseball's ridiculous "observation" reiterated on Sunday, but for the purpose of this argument, that doesn't matter.
What counts is that when he made his decision, La Russa believed it was pine tar. He 100 percent believed that he could have had Rogers tossed, forcing the Tigers to go to long relievers early in a critical game.
In his mind, he and his underdog Cardinals had this World Series all but won, a Series that would help history forget those October failures with the Oakland Athletics, a Series that would justify all those books about his genius.
All La Russa had to do was ask the umpires to enforce the rules. All he had to do was, essentially, the right thing, the thing that nearly any other coach in any other situation would do.
Winning isn't everything, right? It's the only thing.
But La Russa lives by another principle, one that would rather protect a guy he believes is trying to cheat his team than win by some namby-pamby rulebook, which has been so shredded through the years it holds virtually no weight anymore. He coached Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and he surely realizes his current pitchers have dabbled in pine tar themselves.
La Russa is no angel here. But he is no hypocrite, either.
Sure, he may be just protecting his own cheating players, but most managers would attack anyway. Especially since bouncing Rogers would have changed everything.
"To me the way to handle that situation was to alert [the umpires]. ‘Let's get it fixed so we can play the game,'" La Russa said. "And that's the way I went."
He just wanted Rogers to get rid of whatever was on his hand and then try to get his guys out cleanly. If he did, then so be it.
La Russa chose his own values over winning at any cost. And, as strange as it sounds for someone to fall back on principles to save a possible cheater, that's baseball for you. It's more pro wrestling than pro sports.
"There's a line that I think that defines the competition," La Russa said. "And you can sneak over the line because we're all fighting for the edge. I always think, 'Does it go to the point of abuse?' And that's where you start snapping.
"I also know that pitchers use some sticky stuff to get a better grip from the first throw in spring training to the last side they're going to throw in the World Series. Just because there's a little something that they're using to get a better grip, that doesn't cross the line, you know?"
The line in the rule book be damned.
"I said, 'Let's get rid of it and keep playing,' " he said. "That's the attitude I took. If he didn't get rid of it, I would have challenged it. But I do think it's a little bit part of the game at times and don't go crazy.
"You've got to live with yourself. It's not the way we want to win."
So now the Series is on the manager. If the Cardinals lose (especially if Rogers closes them out in Game 6), then La Russa's decision to go soft in Game 2 will be cursed by Cardinals Nation.
But if they win, if they come back and beat the favored Tigers straight up, even after showing mercy, even after taking the high road, then all the great things they say and write about Tony La Russa start ringing true.
In the short term, he just showed a world of confidence in his team, just showed them he thinks they are good enough to win straight up.
"We can compete with anyone," he said.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006 2:21 am, EDT