LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Every day Tony La Russa would go to the ballpark, and every day somebody – at least one soul, often more – would ask him how he was doing, and every day he would have the same ready response.
"I'll tell you in five hours."
Until then, he would not – could not – commit.
If they were going to play a ballgame, and if they were going to keep score, then La Russa would know at the end of all that.
"For 50 years I lived my life around the score of that game," he said without regret or pride or anything other than the way it was. "Wait and see if you're good enough that night."
He is 69. On a Monday morning in a ballroom outside Disney World, at the far end of coming up on 5,200 games, those games having had their say on at least that many days, La Russa was introduced as a Hall of Fame manager. He sat alongside Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who will be inducted with him.
Their numbers are big and their careers are lifetimes. But it was their presence in a sport that seems sometimes to measure itself by the hour, or even by the moment, that is ultimately so enduring. They were smart and they screwed up, they were dignified and they threw absolute fits, they won and they lost, they were hired and fired. A lot.
Torre was fired by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995. In 1996, La Russa was hired by the Cardinals. Cox was fired by the Atlanta Braves in 1981. In 1982, Torre was hired by the Braves.
Mostly, though, they showed up, they did the best they could, they kept score and they came back the next day and did it all again. When it was all counted up by the end of the season, they were better than most at it, so it made great sense that the results were the same when it was all counted up by the ends of their careers.
They were towering figures on the top step, perhaps the last of their kind we'll see for a time, almost certainly sitting three abreast. They won championships and they shaped the game and they were, almost without fail, the consciences of the clubhouses they oversaw.
Of them, only Torre played the game with any great significance. What made them iconic was standing out in front of it, and bearing the consequences of what followed, and being very, very good at balancing the urgency of three hours against the trickle of six months. They did it for so long they presumably can remember when pitchers finished the games they started, when players were measured by people who saw them play and when a bunt was considered a most reasonable offensive strategy.
The phone calls came early Monday morning. The expansion era committee had elected each of them unanimously.
Torre was asleep in his hotel room. He couldn't find his phone for a moment, then he found it, answered it, heard that it was the Hall of Fame calling and then mistakenly hung up before hearing what he'd hoped for. He goes in as a Yankee.
"I was always trying to be blasé about this," Torre said after 2,326 wins and four championships. "Then it hits you like a sledgehammer."
He stopped talking when he became weepy.
Four decades ago, after trying too long and too hard to be a big leaguer (he hit .225 in 220 games with the Yankees), Cox was going to go home and become a high school football coach. Instead, he stuck around, won 2,504 games, more than 1,700 in two rounds with the Braves, and could go into the Hall with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
La Russa batted .199 in 132 major-league games. The Chicago White Sox hired him to be their manager when he was 34. For his entry into managing, leaving his playing career behind, he thanked, "All the guys who knew I was lousy."
They laughed together, the three of them, all knowing they'd lived it the best they could, and they were damned lucky to get some players who could play, and in some cases some owners who could pay, and sometimes it all works. They are grayed, and a little paunchy, and wear the job in the corners of their eyes. They represented greatness, or drew greatness from moments that required it, and sometimes were great themselves. Not every day, but enough of them. It's the nature of the gig.
As he waited for the call, or the silence, that would come Monday morning, La Russa said he had a single thought.
"Prepare for the worst," he said. "Hope for the best."
The philosophy – make that strategy – had worked for a very long time, every day, just like that. He's doing fine today, thanks.