The tributes to Tony LaRussa are piling up today, after his retirement caught most folks by surprise. He won a third World Series championship last week, and the next time we see him might be the day he walks into Cooperstown.
He is being remembered for the numbers - 2,728 wins - and should be. Only two men in history managed more games, Connie Mack and John McGraw.
I'll always remember him for a small kindness to a young m anager, Don Wakamatsu.
It was midway through the 2010 season, and Wakamatsu had gone from superb rookie manager in 2009 to something of a pariah with the Seattle Mariners not quite three months into his second year as a manager. There was the flash-fire retirement of Ken Griffey Jr., the dugout confrontation with Chone Figgins and the increasing lack of support from the front office.
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The Mariners were in St. Louis for an interleague series with the Cardinals and, sitting in Wakamatsu's office before a game, LaRussa's name came up. Wakamatsu said he'd talked to veteran managers over the years - Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson - but would love to talk to LaRussa.
I knew LaRussa only as a visiting writer, but he'd always been cooperative and friendly and we had a comfortable relationship. I walked out on to the field and found him near the Cardinals dugout, watching batting practice. I asked if he had a minute, he did, and I told him what Wak had said.
Tony said he'd watched Wakamatsu from a distance, liked the way he handled the game and himself. He said his wife was out of town that week, and that after games he spent an hour reading and enjoying a glass of wine before heading home. If Wakamatsu wanted to join him, it would be his pleasure.
I passed that on to Wakamatsu, and the two men got together that night. It meant an awful lot to Wakamatsu, and to me. When I thanked LaRussa before Seattle left town, he was gracious.
"It was a pleasure getting to know Don," he said. "I hope they're patient in Seattle."
They weren't. But that's another story.