This story appears in the Dec. 12, 2011, "Interview Issue" of ESPN The Magazine.
If you've ever heard a jock give a surprisingly revealing interview on ESPN's airwaves, you can bet John Sawatsky had something to do with it. Sawatsky, a former investigative journalist, coaches many of the network's reporters in the science of asking the right questions at the right time. So this being our Interview Issue, we wanted to see if he could actually put his theories into practice while paired with Tony La Russa, one of the most cerebral managers in history. Not only did Sawatsky accept our challenge, he
SAWATSKY: What kind of ballplayer were you in your playing days? (1)
LA RUSSA: It's painful to remember, in terms of productivity and injuries. The only real credit I give myself is that I had a certain toughness. For the first six or seven years, there was only one year I didn't really have a major injury, and I still played another 10. I got some big league time in the late 1960s, and in 1973 I had a good season at Triple-A, and all I got for it was a pinch-running appearance with the Cubs. So I quit fooling myself and said, "Look, I have to do something else for a living." (2)
What were your options when your playing days were over? (3)
I had started law school at Florida State University as a part-timer. I would go two quarters, and they allowed me to drop out to play baseball, and then I'd get readmitted in September. I was convinced I was going to be a lawyer and was using my baseball salary to pay my way through school. I graduated from law school in 1978, but my wife, Elaine, and I decided I should take a job managing in the minors to get it out of my system. The White Sox gave me the opportunity, and I spent half the year at Double-A Knoxville. At the end of the year they hired Don Kessinger for the '79 season, and I got the job in Des Moines [Triple-A]. And in August of '79, they offered me the White Sox job [after Kessinger resigned]. (4) This was a shocker. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but here it is, 30-plus years later.
When you got that great opportunity, how long did you see yourself managing?
Oh, please. I was a lousy player with virtually no experience managing. I was surviving day to day. My experience was playing and coaching in the minors. Your No. 1 responsibility is to figure out what players can do well and where they struggle. And most of what you try to do is to help them improve where they struggle, maintain what they do well, and then the strategy of the game
comes down to putting them in a position to succeed. You've really got to get with each guy and explain to them and persuade them and work with them. I have coaching friends, and when we get together, we often talk more about what we're doing to get players' attention than we do about the fascinating X's and O's of our sport. The reason it's so critical is that when I started, it was just at the beginning of free agency. The players all of a sudden had a tremendous amount of control over where they played and how much they made.
How were you able to adapt to those changing circumstances?
I was still a relic from survival, and the way you fight through is to put your professionalism and integrity first, and all the other stuff falls into place. (5) Now, that doesn't come naturally for very many people. A great example is Albert Pujols. His value system has been impeccable since the day he signed.
So how do you manage in an age of superstars and superegos? (6)
Personalize, personalize, personalize. You need to show you care; you need to earn their trust and respect. This is the entire staff, not just me. And trust means telling the truth. Sometimes that's not what they want to hear, but you can't bulls--t them, because there goes your credibility.
But you also understand that these guys have a life. So you make it clear that if at any point there is a personal need I can help with, I'm there. That's why you get Albert saying I'm like a father to him. We talk about more than just playing the game. That closeness exists almost without exception, and that's a real good memory or a feeling to have. I can only think of about four players who I do not have anywhere from a good to a great relationship with. And I think that's a surprise.
Who are those four exceptions?
You can ask all you want. You got no chance. (7)
Okay, I won't even try. Where does the 2011 World Series rank in your list of achievements? (8)
Winning in Oakland in '89 was distinguished because that was truly a great team on a mission to prove that '88 was not what we represented. I look at that team in awe. It was a push-button team.
There was a bit of history in 2006 too. We had 83 wins, and that's among the lowest ever [for
a champion]. But that team was victimized by injuries in the second half, which took away from how well we played the first half to build up a lead. But we got healthy in October to a great degree, and so it's a very special championship because it proved that our team was special and overcame that adversity.
This 2011 team, though, is going to be one that people talk about because of being 10 1/2 games back [in the wild card] in August. But it's tied for first with me with '89 and '06. It's like your sons and daughters, you know? They're all special.
One of the things you learn is when you're in the midst of something like that, whether it's a September run or the playoffs, if you stop to reflect and enjoy even for a moment, you lose a big edge.
What is it actually like in that moment, to go through with it and not stop to savor the moment? (9)
Human nature is what it is, and Game 6 of the World Series is a great example. I mean, that was an incredible comeback, and you want to stop and go, "Wow, wow, wow!"
We made it a point the next day among the coaches and the key veteran players to put that Game 6 comeback in a box. We get to the ballpark at 1, 2, 3 o'clock and don't play until 7, and if at any point that box starts to open up, you just slam it shut. You can't allow what happened the day before to distract from your competitive edge.
At what point along the way did retirement come into the picture for you? (10)
Well, you have your personal accountability. And you should get to the level 10, doing the best you can every day, right? In the last three or four years, it was tougher to get to that top level. And then when you start having serious concerns that you may not get there -- it's just too much.
But as for this season, it was around June or July that I started seriously considering it. And I decided that if I still felt that way with a month to go, I was going to make sure I alerted my bosses -- principal owner Bill DeWitt and our general manager, John Mozeliak. I talked to them and I said, "I want to be fair and help you prepare. I think this is it."
What are the prospects for returning to managing at some point?
I believe they're zero.
No Brett Favre here? (11)
No. I mean, I think there are other challenges in the game of baseball and beyond baseball that are going to be exciting and get me out of bed in the morning, fired up to go.
What do you plan to do next?
I'm not going to sit around the porch and watch the sun go up and down. We'll see if there's something in baseball where I can contribute. I've had a couple of inquiries, and we'll see where it goes.
(1) Why start here? To maximize contrast. La Russa had a stellar managerial career, but he was a mediocre player. A portrait of his modest beginning makes his achievements more remarkable.
(2) By describing his shortcomings as a player, La Russa has seemingly disqualified himself from a lifelong career in baseball.
(3) This question is designed to advance the improbability thesis a step further by revealing that even La Russa did not intend to stay in baseball.
(4) A big reversal has happened, and we now have a story.
(5) Here La Russa imposes control of the story. When did he abandon law and forever lock into baseball? It's never asked because La Russa moves his story ahead too quickly, and I let him get away.
(6) His story can move forward into new territory, or I can force him to expand on his previous point. I do the latter and am back in control of the process.
(7) I may control the process, but La Russa controls the content.
(8) There isn't time to discuss every one of La Russa's 50 accomplishments, so I choose to focus on the 2011 World Series and ask him to explain it in the context of his other big successes.
(9) This one is designed to keep La Russa in the moment so that readers can experience it with him. Ironically, the moment is one in which he was actively trying not to rejoice in the moment.
(10) The goal of this interview is to tell the story of the accidental manager who became one of the all-time greats. This question brings the story full circle and chronicles his exit from managing.
(11) Oops! Closed questions -- those that don't allow the interviewee to expand -- should be avoided unless all you want is him/her to confirm or deny something. This is one of those occasions.