Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tony LaRussa: Man on a Mission (a review)

Continuing our sporadic reviews of Cardinals-themed books. I was recently offered the opportunity to read Rob Rains' latest treatise and post my thoughts on the same. Mr. Rains was also kind enough to submit to a United Cardinal Blogger Radio Hour grilling, and that shining beacon of interviewing expertise can be found here. Tony LaRussa: Man on a Mission is an unauthorized biography of the Cardinal manager, although LaRussa did review the manuscript (and I'm sure offer suggestions and clarifications) before it went to publication.

Since this is the third such review I've done, I've developed a simple metric for evaluation: was I entertained, did the book achieve its stated goal, and would I recommend it. So, without further adieu:

- Was I entertained? Yes. This book is a light read; I started and finished it on a cross-country flight. It kept my attention well.

Some folks read for pleasure, some for knowledge. Happily Man on a Mission delivered both. I did not know LaRussa has managed 6 Rookies of the Year (Walt Weiss, McGwire, Ozzie Guillen, Ron Kittle, Canseco, Pujols). The entire discussion of the 2002 season was quite interesting. I did not know he was offered a minor league managing job by the Cardinals in 1978 (pg 32). I was not aware of the 'place a mediocre hitter in the #2 slot' idea (pg 81); that's something I disagree with, but it was interesting to see another perspective. I did not know Ankiel broke Dizzy Dean's club record for strikeouts by a rookie in 2000. I had forgotten about the hamstring injury Ozzie Smith suffered at the tail end of spring training in 1996, which may have been another reason Royce Clayton got the starting job coming out of the gate. And, the explanation of why Ankiel pitched Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS helped my understanding of what happened.

- Did the book achieve its stated goal? Sort of. Based on the title, and the prologue, it tries to dig into what drives LaRussa, why he competes the way he does, and why he loves the game. I didn't come away with a better understanding of what drives the man. I'd come to the conclusion, after years of watching him manage St Louis, that he's an alpha male who competes at everything and hates to lose. This book says essentially the same thing. However, this book is a chronological treatment of LaRussa's managerial career, starting with his first job (White Sox AA farm Knoxville) and running through his stint with the Cardinals. Rains covers LaRussa's childhood and playing baseball career in 32 pages. It does not 'delve into...the upbringing and sheltered personal life that helped shape LaRusssa...' (quoted from the press release). The book covers all the major events of his managerial career, but not very deeply, so I didn't come away with any new understanding of LaRussa's philosophy or life view.

I found one errata in the book. On page 221 Rains states the Cardinals won the first two games of the season-ending series against Houston, then lost on the last day of the season (which caused the tie and subsequent relegation of St Louis to the wild card). That's not quite correct. St Louis lost the opening game of that series 2-1 (5 Oct 2001), then split the next two to finish in the tie.

There are some areas I wish he had addressed further. Why did LaRussa put up with some guy's antics (both in the clubhouse and out) and not others? If he makes a point of talking to every one on the roster every couple of days (see page 120), how could he not know if there was steroid use in his locker room? LaRussa is fiercely loyal to his inner circle (Duncan, Weinberg). But some guys he never gave a chance to get there (ex-Cardinals trainer Gieselmann) (see pg 196). Why is that?

- Would I recommend it? Yes. Looking for an anthology of LaRussa's managerial career? This is the book. And, there are some interesting tidbits in the book as well (as discussed above). Again, it is very readable, and most folks will enjoy the read.

The book lists for about $25, but you can probably find it for less than $20 at booksellers everywhere. It's a great gift for Dad, brother, boyfriend, boy-toy - whatever role that oh-so-special Cardinal fan fills for you.

Programming Note: I'm hosting the Radio Hour tonight (7:30 PDT). Hope to hear from you then. If you're too lazy to click the link, the dial in number is (646) 929-1758.

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