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La Russa Biography Presents A Balanced Portrait

Posted Mar 15, 2009 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 15, 2009 at 08:04 PM

When I first began reading Rob Rains’ new book on Tony La Russa, my initial impression was “oh wow, this seems like it’s going to be a hero-worship biography.” Tampa boy makes it to the majors, can’t cut it as a player, but becomes a manager and leads two different teams to World Series titles. Pats on the back and handshakes all around.

Well, Rains proved me wrong. It didn’t take too many pages of “Tony La Russa: Man On A Mission” (Triumph Books, $24.95) to realize that here was a balanced portrait of a man whose intensity and strategies have allowed him to rank third all-time in victories among major-league managers.

And what amazed me most was an interview I read after finishing the book. In a 2004 discussion, Rains conceded that he was “not a La Russa guy,” not questioning his baseball knowledge but wondering about his ability to motivate and communicate.

That opinion does not come through in this work. Credit Rains for interviewing more than 50 relatives, childhood friends, former players, coaches and La Russa himself — plus, using extensive newspaper (including several Tampa Tribune citations) and magazine research — to present a well-rounded profile. Rains presents both sides of La Russa, but leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not they are “La Russa guys.”

Rains is no stranger to baseball in St. Louis. He’s a former beat writer for USA Today Baseball Weekly. He has written 25 books, including “Cardinal Nation,” “Albert The Great,” “Whitey’s Boys” (about the 1982 Cardinals World Series champions) and “Mark McGwire: Home Run Hero” In addition, he taught a sports reporting class at Webster University in St. Louis.

What won me over in this book was when Rains described the feud La Russa had with Chicago White Sox announcers Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall. Lots of behind-the-scenes information and a fascinating story.
Some good research on the prickly relationship La Russa had with catcher Carlton Fisk also was illuminating. Same with the more recent run-ins with Scott Rolen.

And, the antics of Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson were enough to send any manager to distraction, but La Russa managed to maintain his sanity. Rains also delves into the steroids issues and McGwire’s testimony to Congress — and La Russa’s impressions of the proceedings.

Rains understands that authors or sportswriters must give readers “something different, something fresh that they didn’t get somewhere else.” He said as much in his 2004 interview, when he was talking about his sportswriting class.

In his biography of La Russa, Rains achieves that goal.