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THE Eclectic Athletic : Tony La Russa Isn't Your Average Baseball Man, Which May Explain Why Oakland Manager Has Won Three Pennants in a Row

March 05, 1991|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A: In (hometown) Tampa. I was blessed with supportive parents who encouraged me to play games. They never asked me to work. My father drove an ice truck for years, and then a milk truck. He got up at 2:30 each morning to begin his route, but never missed one of my games, even night games. He'd get home about 11 (p.m.) from a high school game, and get up at 2:30 to go to work.

Q: Is he an A's fan?

A: Yes, my parents and my sister (see) a lot of Oakland games now (via satellite).

Q: Is your mother that interested in baseball?

A: She's come to like baseball, although she's always put school first. We spoke Spanish at home, so as a kid I had to learn English to go to school. In Oakland during the season, I do two pregame shows--one in English, one in Spanish--and my mother loves it. The only thing she's ever asked of me was to stay in school--to spend my off-seasons in college.

Q: That's the hard way to get a college degree.

A: After making the commitment to my mother, I stayed with it. Anyhow, I love reading. I look at books and see friends.

Q: How many years did you spend in college?

A: I went back to school in 12 of my 16 off-seasons as a player. It took seven years to get a (B.A.) degree at the University of South Florida, and another five years for the (law) degree from Florida State. My lifetime batting average (after a shoulder injury early on) was .199--so it wasn't that hard to keep going to school. My way might have been the best way to do law school.

Q: Why?

A: It gets to be a grind if you don't take some time off. I was in law school with some kids who finished in 2 1/2 years by going to class winter and summer. That leads to burnout. My baseball career forced me to stretch it out, and I came back to Florida State fresh every year. After 24 years in school, all told, I ended up graduating with honors.

Q: That suggests you have a keen grasp of the law.

A: Or a keen intellect. But the fact is that neither is true. What happened was that my grades were so poor the first year that I was embarrassed into doing better. Some of my buddies and I made it into a game, trying to win grades instead of ballgames. I'm a dedicated competitor, and it was the competition that drove me. It didn't have all that much to do with the law.

Q: Did you bother to take the Florida bar exam?

A: Yes, and passed the first time--but that also took years. After graduating from law school in March of 1978, I had to wait for the (state boards)--and that was a perfect time to try managing. I fully intended to be a lawyer, but in the meantime I had to do something else, and accepted the first (offer).

Q: That was where?

A: I managed the double-A Knoxville club that spring and summer, and then a Dominican club that winter, and came back in February to take the first two parts of the (three-part) bar exam. Eight months later, I sat for the third part during my first season as manager of the White Sox. That was in October of 1979--after I'd started the year (managing) the triple-A Iowa team.

Q: What if you'd gotten the White Sox into the World Series?

A: When (owner) Bill Veeck (promoted) me from Iowa (on Aug. 2, 1979), we agreed on one condition--that I'd take the bar exam.

Q: Since then, your teams have been in three World Series, losing two of them. Has it occurred to you that the National League might be the stronger league?

A: No, I think the American League is stronger (although) in the last three Series, the other side played well all three times. Twice, we could have played better. We recognize that--we'll do everything in our power to correct it. But we're proud to have won three American League championships.

TIME OUT FOR BALLET AND AMERICAN INDIANS

Q: Who got you going in ballet?

A: My wife, Elaine. She danced some before we were married. Our daughters (Bianca, 11, and Devon, 8) are also enthusiastic about ballet. Elaine takes them to six or seven dance classes a week, and they want more. The rec room we built above the garage last year is more like a rehearsal room--with a ballet bar, mirrors and all the rest. The '89 World Series paid for it.

Q: What else is different about your house?

A: The house is just a spread-out California house, four bedrooms, on a couple of acres (in Danville) but there are walls of books in most rooms. And a big backyard. My wife raises all our food back there--we're organic vegetarians--and (the children) help her work the big garden. It's no secret that I'm useless. All I can do is pick tomatoes.

Q: Why do you have so many books?

A: We're home-schoolers. My wife has taught the children most of the time since they've been of school age, although we've had some tutors. Where possible, instead of textbooks, we prefer library books--history, geography, novels and so on. That requires a good, big library. This year, for a change, Bianca and Devon were in a (private) school in Lafayette (Calif.). When we came to Arizona for spring training, they gave us a lesson plan to take along. A tutor comes twice a week.

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