|Saturday, December 14
La Russa, others 'just try not to fall down'
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Serious Tony La Russa arrived an hour late for ballet rehearsal, and not even his holiday cheer could save him from an immediate scolding.
"Mr. La Russa, you're fired!'' hollered Lara Deans Lowe of the Oakland Ballet.
She was kidding, of course -- the National League Manager of the Year couldn't get canned from his volunteer job leading "All-Star Night at the Nutcracker.'' As the veteran of the show, everyone was counting on La Russa to make sure the ensemble of Bay Area sports stars knew how to dance their parts.
The performance Friday night -- preceded by a hilarious dress rehearsal -- marked the 16th year local pro athletes have performed alongside pro dancers, with proceeds going to the ballet's community outreach program.
The athletes needed help, too.
It was unlike any batting practice or pregame warmup these athletes have endured.
Their one stipulation: no tights.
"You've got to be graceful. You can't use brute strength,'' observed Dana Stubblefield, a 315-pound defensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers.
Stubblefield squeezed into an extra-large red T-shirt for his role as a solider. There were no pants large enough to fit him, so his baby-blue sweat pants had to do.
La Russa, who manages the St. Louis Cardinals, lives in nearby Danville during the offseason. His 20-year-old daughter, Devon, is in the ballet, and his wife, Elaine, also participated in the public performance.
When La Russa finally showed up for practice, he was welcomed by those who know him from both the ballet and the ballpark.
He went down the line shaking hands, but when Shawon Dunston, a reserve outfielder last season for the NL champion San Francisco Giants, reached out to greet La Russa, Dunston got nothing in return. Apparently, La Russa was still holding a grudge for the Giants beating the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
Aside from that silliness, La Russa was all business, his face concentrated the entire time.
La Russa doesn't mind embarrassing himself a bit each time, but works hard not to.
"The goal every year is don't fall down,'' he said.
While La Russa was an old pro, the others needed extra work.
Dunston scratched his head as he tried to learn his part for the "Rats and Soldiers'' battle scene. And Oakland Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis cursed to himself when his timing was off and they had to start over.
"I'm learning I'm no dancer,'' Ellis said. "It's tough. I'm sweating.''
Dunston growled about his back hurting as he lay on the hard floor with his legs in the air.
"You don't do that in baseball,'' quipped dancer Jorge Rojas.
Deans Lowe called for them to try it again.
Dunston quickly jumped to his feet, clapped his hands together and, with a big smile on his face, said, "When's this over?''
The event started with baseball players in "A's Night at the Nutcracker.''
"For all the guys who do it, they really learn the dancers are great athletes,'' La Russa said. "It takes tremendous conditioning. My daughter has a high ankle sprain and will perform 14 shows in 11 days. In our business, you'd be on the disabled list for two weeks at least, with benefits and pay.''
Aside from the few times they weren't in sync, the performance went off without a hitch, and the athletes were a hit with the 2,000 or so who attended at the Paramount Theatre on a very rainy day. The organizers got Ellis and San Jose Earthquakes goalie Joe Cannon to go shirtless in one scene.
Even those who showed up late for the rehearsal made it through just fine. Stubblefield learned his steps for the battle scene in a hallway after the group's stage time was up. His family cheered for him in the audience.
Stubblefield impressed the crowd -- and his fellow sports stars -- when he easily lifted dancer Ilana Goldman for the "Arabian Coffee'' scene.
Deans Lowe had made sure earlier in the day it was OK with Stubblefield.
"Do you have anything in your contract saying you can't pick anybody up?'' she asked.
"They don't understand I pick up guys seven times her weight,'' Stubblefield said.