Tony La Russa is a baseball lifer. He began his career in the minors; had an unproductive stint as a major leaguer, batting .199 over six seasons as a utility infielder; and made a name for himself as one of the best managers in the game. He won six pennants and three World Series over a 33-year span for the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox and, most recently, St. Louis Cardinals. He ranks third in wins behind Hall of Fame managers Connie Mack and John McGraw, and trails only Mack in games at the helm with 5,097. There is no doubt that La Russa will earn his own plaque in Cooperstown when he becomes eligible.
"Aided by Rick Hummel, an award-winning journalist who spent four decades with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, La Russa lets fans into the secret world of managing, with its acid-churning decisions, thought processes, and personnel (and personal) issues."
La Russa decided during the 2011 campaign that it would be his last as a field leader. As with many of his generation, the demands of the game, both in terms of production and handling the younger and more expensive players, started to take their toll on the enjoyment of the profession for the 67-year-old. And even though he couldn’t have predicted it at the time, what better way to go out than on top? La Russa directed the Cardinals to a thrilling pennant race, as the subtitle indicates, and defeated the Texas Rangers for the World Championship.
Aided by Rick Hummel, an award-winning journalist who spent four decades with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, La Russa lets fans into the secret world of managing, with its acid-churning decisions, thought processes, and personnel (and personal) issues. They guide readers over the last few months of the season --- with mere passing references to La Russa’s years as a player and manager of the A’s and White Sox --- as the Cardinals clawed their way back from a deep deficit and unexpectedly beat what was considered a superior team in the Series.
Cards fans who have an intimate knowledge of the players will no doubt consider ONE LAST STRIKE an essential part of their baseball library, as will those who are interested in a manager’s mental manipulations, which have to take into consideration who’s hot and who’s not, both on your team and your opponent’s. Then there are the work-arounds when it comes to who’s injured physically or who’s having a tough time mentally (La Russa’s long-time coach and friend Dave Duncan was going through family health issues), which the authors use to show that these are human beings and not athletic robots.
La Russa is all business. You won’t find any locker room gossip or even derogatory remarks about his charges, although you know there has to have been some disagreements along the way. Just about everyone in his eyes deserves the benefit of the doubt, leading to ho-hum descriptions that Player A really knows how to play the game of baseball or Player B is a true major leaguer. That might be a disappointment to those who really want the dirt (La Russa even glosses over the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs).
Another potential problem is that La Russa is a craftsperson, and as such loves to talk about his work as if he was in the presence of other craftspeople. A long-used “baseballism” is that the worst players make the best managers because they spend so much time on the bench that they can become adept students of the game. Some of the narrative borders on jargon (an appendix includes photos of various paperwork that would give the code-breakers of World War II fits). Of course, this is completely comprehensible to La Russa’s peers and uber-fans, but a mystery and perhaps a bit off-putting to the casual reader.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on October 5, 2012