What I’m Reading: “One Last Strike” by Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel

In “One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season,” Tony La Russa looks back at what he believed would be his final season as a major-league manager.

The 2011 Cardinals team was, of course, a great team to write a book about, with strong personalities and an incredible story to tell. The book is at its best when it’s sharing stories about the players. La Russa’s obvious affection for role players like Gerald Laird and Arthur Rhodes provides a bright spot, and Raphael Furcal’s despondency following a key late-season was a detail I hadn’t heard before.

It also was interesting to read about the discussions taking place between La Russa and his staff and John Mozeliak as the trade deadline approached. La Russa doesn’t get into many specifics about the trade of Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays, but he does discuss the question the team confronted as the trade deadline approached – if the Cardinals traded Rasmus for role players who could help them that season, did the team have enough talent to compete for a championship? Ultimately, La Russa and his staff believed that they did, and the rest was history.

La Russa’s personality is evident throughout the book, so your mileage may vary. It’s his book, of course, so he addresses issues and controversies in his own way. If you feel that La Russa was condescending during his postgame press conferences, this book won’t change your mind.

At times, he’s a bit curmudgeonly and defensive. He says that fatigue of dealing with the media was a major part of his decision to retire. He takes a brief segue to rehash his longstanding dispute with Ozzie Smith, going out of the way to point out that Ozzie’s final season became a farewell tour after he announced his retirement, while La Russa kept his retirement a secret to keep it from becoming a distraction. He also defends himself from the common critique that he doesn’t particularly like using young players, and defends his relationship with Rasmus by pointing out that he asked the team’s veterans to take Rasmus under their wing.

La Russa’s defense of his first DUI (much like his initial defense of the second) is particularly uninspiring, as he recounts that police officers had found him stopped at a red light, asleep. “Evidently, I’d had too much wine and failed the breath test.” Evidently, indeed. With the recent news of another DUI, La Russa’s careful framing to avoid responsibility is grating.

As a manager, he obviously looks at the game with a unique perspective, plotting out potential moves well in advance, and he brings that thought process to recounting the 2011 season. At times, it brings a unique dynamic to his descriptions of the games. At other times, such as when recounting David Freese’s World Series Game 6 home run, it comes off as dry and uninspired.

In all, “One Last Strike” is worth reading for fans of the 2011 Cardinals, especially as La Russa prepares to return to the dugout as the new manager of the White Sox. The La Russa era in St. Louis was a period of great success, and the tone he set continues to have an impact on the team’s approach to the game and its perception within the league.

Unfortunately, in writing this book La Russa often feels a bit too guarded. He is perfectly content to discuss managerial strategy, but everything else remains close to the vest. For some, that will be enough. For most readers, however, I would recommend “3 Nights in August” by Buzz Bissinger first.

Some of my favorite stories from the book:

  • La Russa recounts an interleague game against Detroit that the Cardinals lost 10-1. Afterwards, La Russa lit into his team about its effort and locked the doors to the room where the team’s spread was laid out, telling them that if they weren’t going to put in the effort, they wouldn’t get to eat. The next day, Eric Davis brought a paper bag to the clubhouse. When La Russa asked him about it, Davis told him it contained a sandwich. The veteran outfielder knew he wasn’t scheduled to play that day, but this time he was prepared in case his teammates played with the same effort.
  • La Russa mentions an August 22 game against the Dodgers in which he came out to the mound in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game to pull Chris Carpenter from the game. After calling for Rhodes from the bullpen, he asked Carpenter to wait for Rhodes to arrive and take the ball so that La Russ and Carpenter could walk off the field together. Instead, Carpenter walked away, telling La Russa, “I’ll take the applause. You get the boos all to yourself.” Sure enough, the crowd booed La Russa, especially after the Dodgers scored two runs to win the game.
  • After Yadier Molina hit his ninth-inning home run against the Mets in the 2006 NLCS, he always objected when La Russa suggested he might take a day off in New York. No. No,” he would say. “Before or after New York. I like to hear them boo me.”
  • Before the 2011 World Series, the Rangers wanted to change the Cardinals’ workout time at the Ballpark in Arlington. When Major League Baseball called to tell La Russa, he objected, explaining that the Cardinals had moved up their flight to appear at their scheduled workout time. “Tell them no way,” La Russa said. “And tell Nolan Ryan that I’m not Robin Ventura either.”

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