Tony La Russa, Diplomat

Albert Pujols is up for the biggest contract in baseball history. The St. Louis Cardinals and their fans are getting antsier by the minute, petrified their franchise player will bolt at the end of the season. Twenty-nine other teams and their fans fantasize about penciling one of the 10 greatest hitters in the game’s history into their lineup. Pujols’ fate is the biggest story around right now. Nothing else is even close.

How could Tony La Russa not get involved?

Addressing the media yesterday, La Russa fumed that the Major League Baseball Players Association is trying to “beat up” his star player. That “is bullshit,” the 66-year-old manager ranted to ESPN’s Jayson Stark. “That’s not the way it should be.” He was just getting warmed up. The union does this with many high-profile players, La Russa charged, in an effort to raise the salary bar for other members. But with Pujols, it’s “not just arm-twisting. It’s dropping an anvil on your back through the roof of your house.”

When it comes to contract negotiations with his players, this is typical La Russa. He did it with Matt Holliday after the 2009 season, he’s doing it now with Pujols, and he’ll do it again with the next big star in a contract year.

Talk to those who know La Russa or write about him, and they’ll say this isn’t about the manager begrudging his players’ paydays. He likes to deflect attention away from those close to him, observers say. If Cardinals management and a player get locked in contentious negotiations, La Russa will find a third party to take the blame — the easier the scapegoat the better. When Holliday waited for the best deal, his agent Scott Boras got the blame. With Pujols, it’s the players union. In La Russa’s world, if Pujols doesn’t re-sign with the Cardinals, his bosses can’t be at fault, and neither can his player. Another party must be there to play the role of the villain. It’s a pragmatic approach, meant to foster a sense of loyalty from everyone around him.

When La Russa lashed out at the union, a reporter called him on it. Have you told Albert this, the reporter asked. La Russa said he had not. Aren’t you using the media to tell him, then? La Russa confirmed that he was.

That he can take this kind of stance, use the media as his microphone rather than talk to his player directly, and see no repercussions, is a testament to La Russa’s influence, his ability to sway public opinion…and maybe some mind-control powers.

If you were negotiating a contract, and a middle manager who stood between you and your bosses started yelling that someone else was controlling your thoughts, that you didn’t have free will to make your own decisions, and that you shouldn’t be so quick to ask for more money…wouldn’t you want to punch that guy in the face? Whether your negotiations were for $30,000, or $300 million, having someone take La Russa’s stance would seem disrespectful and spiteful, even if the middleman claimed to have your best intentions, and the company’s, in mind. And if there’s one thing La Russa can do, aside from manage a good game, it’s make others believe in his intentions.

When La Russa got into a running dispute with up-and-coming outfielder Colby Rasmus over playing time, you’d never fail to hear about Rasmus’ supposedly selfish demands, as well as those of his stage-dadish father.

When La Russa (and Pujols) struck up a friendship with Glenn Beck, then agreed to attend a Beck rally in Washington, DC, La Russa said he wasn’t aware of Beck’s politics or the messages delivered on the FOX NEWS star’s various shows. The Cardinals manager said he was completely shut out from the outside world during baseball season, so focused on the game that he was completely apolitical. Which is odd, because La Russa shouldn’t have to defend himself for attending a rally or befriending any commentator. But he did anyway, and most commentators (save for Cardinals die-hard Will Leitch and a few others) found his I-live-eat-sleep-and-breathe baseball stance charming, and a perfectly valid reason to accept his lack of awareness.

One could also argue that La Russa’s DUI arrest was quickly washed away, largely because he was lucky enough to not hit anyone after passing out behind the wheel. Then again, DUIs and resulting slaps on the wrist are an epidemic in pro sports, so La Russa’s hardly alone in getting off easy.

Tony La Russa has had many successes in his long career in baseball, building winning teams with the White Sox, A’s, and Cardinals. With the help of his right-hand man, pitching coach Dave Duncan, he’s redefined how modern bullpens are used — with Duncan also transforming scores of merely decent pitchers into good ones. La Russa will breeze into the Hall of Fame on the first vote, deservedly going down as one of the most accomplished managers the game has ever known.

But save some credit for his incredible gift of diplomacy. La Russa has had two fawning books written entirely, or partially in his honor. He knows what to say, he knows when to say it, and he knows how to come out smelling like roses. He is the greatest diplomat of his generation.

UPDATE: The players union denies it ever spoke to Pujols, his agent or anyone else in his camp, or pressured him in any way. This after La Russa said he had no specific evidence that such a conversation occurred.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


40 Responses to “Tony La Russa, Diplomat”

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  1. Psychological Terror says:

    LaRussa is a very good manager (although I wouldn’t call him a great manager…he overmanages more than a little bit).

    But man, he is an arrogant jerk sometimes who likes to opine in a very irritating way.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    Then again, DUIs and resulting slaps on the wrist are an epidemic in pro sports,

    Instead of sports, you should say “society”.

    LaRussa is an intelligent prick that has a plan with how to use the media. This is pretty much common knowledge by now.

    What his situation shows is something we have known forever … when you win, all if forgiven.

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    • MetsKnicksRutgers says:

      I wouldn’t use society that broadly. More like celeb/pro athlete society. Eveerybody else gets time after their 2nd DUI no questions unless it’s a dubious DUI (.09 BAC or the person blew under the limit twice was detained then blew a .08 at the station etc.)

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Eveerybody else gets time after their 2nd DUI no questions

        Illinois’ policy reads with words like “may” and “or”, meaning that if the courts wish, they can give an alternate penalty.

        Imprisonment does not seem like a very common consequence for 3rd (or more) DUIs. Heck, I know of people that get DUIs on suspended licenses (parents of students) that do not go to prison.

        They get their license suspended further, can’t drive, get assigned a fine they can’t/won’t pay, and now cannot work. So, basically the state takes them on as a dependent while allowing them to exist outside of prison walls.

        DUI consequences = all talk, IMHO.

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  3. Dudley says:

    It’s certainly LaRussa’s prerogative to attend a birther rally, if that’s how he chooses to spend his precious free time. But it’s also my prerogative to dislike him for it, and anxiously await his downfall for stunts like that, and unfairly holding back the career of Colby Rasmus (who he probably hates for his hippie long hair).

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  4. Boomer says:

    Wish someone would ask LaRussa, the highest paid MLB manager, if he feels Pujols deserves to be the highest paid player.

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  5. Finn Mead says:

    That is the first intelligent comment CircleChange11 has made in weeks.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Naw, it’s probably just the first thing I’ve said that you understood.

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      • jk says:

        you’ve obviously never had a dui. factoring in lost wages i would say my two have cost in excess of 40k. luckily i am a single male in my late twenties and do not have dependents. had i been married or with children i would have faced financial destitution. thousands of dollars in fines, compromised employment, the logistics of making classes/routine court appearances, the blemish of a potential felony on my record barring me from many careers. not to mention possible jail time had i not been middle class with access to good legal representation. I would argue the penalties are downright draconian. with urban sprawl and a lack of public transportation options, all cars should either have intoxilocs factory installed or we should reevaluate how the state handles nonviolent criminals. having two martinis at dinner should not cripple someone financially compromising their career and life in general.

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    • My echo and bunnymen says:

      I comment all the time here, if you can remember a man’s name/screen name here (excluding fangraphs authors) then get a life.

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  6. Thursby says:

    Here is an analogy for you:

    Dave Duncan is to Tony LaRussa as Bill Belichick is to Bill Parcells.

    In other words, LaRussa would be nothing without Duncan – NOTHING.

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    • MetsKnicksRutgers says:

      I can see why people love parcells, everywhere the guy goes he does very well and can turn a franchise around. But, when he leaves said franchise is usually in salary cap purgatory such as with the Jets and Pats and I think the cowboys were also when he left. And despite my handle I’m not a fan of other NJ team, rather a 49er fan, the cherry of my sundae of masochism in regards to my favorite pro sports teams. I was 8 when the 49ers won it in 94 and the 2000s when my love of sports really developed for an obsession has turned me so bitter with the futility of the knicks and 49ers throughout the entire decade and 3 heartbreaking Mets seasons.

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  7. KS says:

    If by diplomat you mean someone who can speak out of both sides of his mouth effortlessly, I’d agree. If you mean someone who can bring differing sides together, I’d say he’s an abject failure.

    La Russa is a highly educated, intelligent man. For him to claim he knows nothing of Glenn Beck’s politics is so incredible that I can only surmise he’s lying. That, along with his uncalled-for and childish attacks on the MLBPA, severely weakens his credibility, and, at least for me, significantly reduces the respect he deserves.

    He’s a fine baseball manager, but not much of man.

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    • jk says:

      i totally agree. i was a fan of Larussa until just now becoming aware of the glenn beck rally. Tony Larussa is a lawyer. to claim ignorance of beck’s politics is downright insulting.

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  8. CooperNB says:

    Don’t really see the point of adding the DUI in this article, other than poisoning the well…

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      How so? The article is about La Russa behaving in questionable ways and largely getting away with it. People that drive while under the influence of any controlled substance deserve scorn, and frankly I wish the subject was brought up more often.

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  9. chuckb says:

    Apparently, the St. Louis reporter chose not to ask Tony where he had heard about the union’s interference. “Did Albert tell you this?” “What is your evidence for this?” Those questions were beyond the purview of the interview. When asked later about it, Kyle McClellan, the Cards’ union rep acknowledged that the union hasn’t been involved in any way. Even today, Tony is standing behind his claims but he still doesn’t shed any light on how he knows about this interference. In fact, he says that “it strains credibility” to believe the union hasn’t been involved. In other words, I know they were involved b/c it makes sense that they were involved.

    Tony benefits from a generous St. Louis media and uses it to his advantage when he needs to. At some point, however, you have to figure that his act will grow stale even on his biggest supporters.

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  10. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Promoting anything Glenn Beck should result in an automatic negative 1.5 WAR per season. The Tex comparable doesn’t look so bad now.

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  11. bryan says:

    Remember what Brandon Phillips said about the Cardinals last season? Well, he was right and LaRussa is the ringleader.

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  12. Rich Mahogany says:

    As if basball players need their union to tell them to shoot for as high a salary as possible. As if any employee does.

    If LaRussa really is a fan of Glenn Beck, then he knows that it’s easy to bash unions these days and get away with it.

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  13. Cookiesboy says:

    I see Tony “did I mention that I’m a lawyer” LaRussa retiring and along with good buddy Bobby ” The King Size Prick” Knight, relocating to El Paso and becoming border-guards but after realizing the guards are union members Tony and Bobby go rogue and capture illegals by throwing folding chairs at them.

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  14. Barkey Walker says:

    “Twenty-nine other teams and their fans fantasize about penciling one of the 10 greatest hitters in the game’s history into their lineup.” I don’t think there are Pittsburgh fans out there thinking, “maybe he will play 9 positions for more than my club pays all 40 of its players.” … I think there are just Boston and New York fans with this on their mind. Even a near top paying team can’t afford this guy. The only exception is the home town clause that lets a high paying team sign its home grown talent to a contract they would never sign otherwise.

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  15. Cookiesboy says:

    The strength of the Red Birds is their pitching that can’t be ignored, pitching and defense win championships but the Cardinals Are saddled by possessing the most productive offensive force in the game, do you commit 30% of your payroll over 10 years to one player,the negative ramifications of such a commitment could effect your franchise for decades. The upcoming Cardinals decision on Albert is a lose, lose but to unleash Goofy Tony with his anti-labor rants is mind boggling all he managed to do was piss the rest of the team off, now that being said I grew up in Philadelphia and in 1968,69 the 76ers were saddled with the greatest player on the planet and arguably the greatest player to ever play the game(this player also claimed to have had sex with 25,000 different women) and they decided not to sign him to a mega contract and then traded him for a guy named Archie F$&#ing Clark.

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    • sgolder06 says:

      I haven’t been reading here long, but that’s an impressive run-on sentence. Is that your thing? The period at the end makes it for me.

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      • Cookiesboy says:

        I could have gone on longer but I was on the phone with my wife and she disrupted my focus. Thank God for ands, buts and commas!!!!!!

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  16. CircleChange11 says:

    negative ramifications of such a commitment could effect your franchise for decades.

    Really, decades? Like a 10-year Pujols contract could still be hurting the Cardinals in 2030? I cannot see the contract hurting them for more than the last 5 years on the contract (if that). That’s IF (a big IF) AP5 keeps playing as 2-4 WAR players for multiple years. Once the contract is over, there’s 30M bucks available.

    The Cardinals, for Albert’s tenure, have been a pretty balanced team. Carpenter and Wainwright are big names, but the offense has had Edmonds, Rolen, etc as well.

    The overall larger problem is the scenario where almost all of the payroll is Carp, Lohse, Holliday, and Pujols (and I guess, Westbrook). Pujols and Holliday, combined, could be 50% of the payroll.

    But, AP5 is the reason that the cardinals have been able to play Skip at 2B, Duncan/Ankiel in LF no offense at C, SS, and even 3B, and get away with it … and be successful in the division. He is a mistake eraser. Correction, he is THE mistake eraser.

    If he leaves StL, those mistakes are going to be even more obvious. Look at the market and see just who might be possibilities that the team would sign with the 30M/y to achieve 8 WAR/year. If it were a team like TB, BOS, etc I would say “let him walk” (if his demands were ridiculous. But, since it is StL, they are likely going to end up spending more money for less production, and losing the face of their franchise. That’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

    I don’t trust the FO to assemble a consistently successful team without AP5. They simply value “grit” far too highly.

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    • My echo and bunnymen says:

      Except for that last paragraph +1

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    • Joel says:

      Maybe it’s apples and oranges but the 10 year contract given to Alexei Yashin and the 15 year contract given to Rick DiPietro for a combined $155 million in 2002 will haunt that franchise until 2030, the albatrosses will even follow them when the team moves to Quebec City in a few years.

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  17. MikeS says:

    LaRussa is clearly correct. Look at all the fuss the union made when Cliff Lee accepted less from the Phillies than he could have gotten from the Yankees or Rangers.

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    • Max says:

      1) Cliff lee didnt leave as much money on the table as everyone thinks. Check the 6th year option and remember that he could still pitch and make more money if he wants, even if he will be 37.

      2) That being said, while the union wants to see the largest possible contract when an MVP/Cy Young type hits the market, for obvious reasons, I dont believe in LaRussa’s conspiracy theory that Pujols is getting flak from them. Glen Beck likes conspiracy theories and gets attention for his outlandish and unsubstantialted remarkes. LaRussa is trying to cover for Pujols by just taking a page out of Beck’s book. LaRussa is an odd bird who is very keen to the media. He may not even believe in Beck’s politics, but just likes the method in which he draws attention to himself.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        Oh come on now. La Russa’s behavior doesn’t have anything to do with Glenn Beck. La Russa would be an ass no matter what. He didn’t pull out a chalk board and start connecting the MLPA with Code Pink and the Muslim Brotherhood or anything.

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  18. PC says:

    What does this have to do with statistical analysis? I wasn’t aware fangraphs was both a judge of character and politics.

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  19. Eddie says:

    LaRussa is scum of the highest order.

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