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Two Minds That Matter

La Russa, Leyland rank among the managerial elite, and they have a strong mutual respect. But they agreed not to discuss it during Series.

October 21, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa have a pact to keep the 102nd World Series about the baseball, and about the players.

So as Leyland's from-nowhere Detroit Tigers and La Russa's still-in-the-game St. Louis Cardinals prepared for Game 1 tonight at Comerica Park, there would be no whimsical recollections of:

* Their few games played head to head as minor leaguers some four decades ago in Alabama.

* Their shared experiences in the American Assn. going on 30 years ago, Leyland managing in Evansville, Ind., La Russa in Iowa.

* Their four seasons in Chicago more than 20 years ago, when Leyland coached third base for La Russa's White Sox.

* Their six years in St. Louis up until this season, when La Russa was winning regularly for the Cardinals, and Leyland was scouting.

La Russa won a World Series as manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1989, Leyland won his as manager of the Florida Marlins eight years later. They were born two months apart in 1944.

In the coming week or so, one of them will join Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win a championship in both leagues, either Leyland with his young, spirited Tigers or La Russa with his familiar, brooding Cardinals.

When it is done, one will toast the other, sadly, proudly.

But they have a pact. Leyland will hand a baseball to his rookie right-hander, Justin Verlander, tonight. La Russa will hand one to his rookie right-hander, Anthony Reyes.

And then, for the next four games, maybe five, maybe more, each will cling to that dugout rail, his friend in his peripheral vision, in sight, out of mind.

"This," said a baseball executive who knows both well, "is one of the all-time matchups, because they have such immense respect for each other."

Leyland leaned into a microphone Friday afternoon. His face was taut. He was serious.

"With all due respect," he began, "I'm going to say this at the beginning of the World Series and hopefully end it: I'm not going to talk about Tony La Russa and myself this series at all. This is about the Cardinal players and the Tiger players. I appreciate that, but that's something totally different than what's going on. ...

"I know some Cardinal players, obviously, that certainly feel like I'm friends with, so I know a little bit, have the utmost respect for everybody, obviously including Tony, but I'm not going to make that a story during the World Series, because I don't think that should be a story. This story should be about the players. And that's what it's going to be about from my end."

These are, clearly, Leyland's ground rules, with La Russa choosing to honor them. When it was his turn to talk, hours later, La Russa darted along the edges of describing their times together, their relationship born of knock-down disagreements as opposing managers, their friendship born of baseball and leadership.

Roland Hemond, general manager of the White Sox then and still a consultant for the team, hired Leyland, La Russa said, and La Russa simply put him to work.

"And then being around him I realized what a talent he is, was, will be, and I've enjoyed it ever since," La Russa said.

Hemond chuckled at La Russa's memory of the Leyland hire.

"Tony's the one who sold me on Jim," he said. "He told me he managed against him in the minors. Tony said he's going to be a great big league manager someday. So I said, 'We better make him our third base coach then.' Yeah, Tony touted him to the high heavens as a great manager."

Hemond is in Detroit for the Series, and for them, for this.

"I wouldn't be here in Detroit tonight if there wasn't this matchup in it, the two of them, or at least one of them," he said. "They're different personalities, but they both have great baseball minds. They're creative, they're daring, they don't get concerned about what other people think. They just do their job. There's a reason they're both here."

Pressed, La Russa can hardly help himself.

"I think he is the best," he said of Leyland. "That means his club will be very ready to play. ... It's actually the greatest situation that you can imagine, to be in a situation against somebody you respect as much as [I] do. But as I said before, if the guy's your friend and you don't want your friend to be unhappy, that's why it's difficult to compete against them, because at the end of the day one of you is going to be unhappy."

He paused and grinned. Forty years go only so far, a pact is only so binding.

"I'd rather Jim be unhappy," he said, "than the Cardinals."


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