For many fans, probably most, the only views of Tony La Russa over the past 30-plus years were on television. They saw his sunglasses and stoic scowl in the dugout, his often curt and testy postgame news conferences, and little else.
I was fortunate enough to see a lot more. I covered the St. Louis Cardinals, managed by La Russa, for 10 seasons -- the last 10 seasons of his career and my only 10 seasons as a beat writer. Over the course of that decade, I lost count of the number of times that out-of-town writers expressed sympathy for my plight. "How do you deal with that on a daily basis?" they'd ask.
And I always told them the truth: I dealt with it because more often than not, it was a really good experience. La Russa absolutely could be a bear. He could be prickly, pushy, combative and condescending. He was also accommodating, thoughtful, fascinating, and endlessly entertaining.
I had other writers playfully accuse me of "Stockholm Syndrome" when I told them there weren't five managers I'd trade La Russa for, as far as someone to cover. I meant it. Still do.
As a baseball beat writer, your most fundamental relationship is with the manager. The manager is more a part of your life than the general manager, owner and all the coaches combined, certainly more than any one player and maybe more than any five or 10 players.
For 10 years, I was in a group that talked to La Russa in the morning every single day of Spring Training. In numbers ranging from two or three to 15 or 20, we talked to him in the morning or afternoon before every spring and regular-season game. We talked to him in the aftermath of every game -- the famous "Tony TV" that was many fans' only off-the-field insight into his personality. During the playoffs, the manager does his daily press conference, but then often he also meets separately, privately, with the beat writers.
A lot of it is baseball of course, asking about injuries and tactics. But a lot of it also consists of conversation about dinner the night before, or a football game that was on TV. I spent more time talking with La Russa over the past 10 seasons than with anyone except my wife.
It wasn't always pleasant, but it was always interesting.
I often joked that even in year 10, I was still learning how to ask questions of La Russa. It was its own challenge, and reporters prefaced questions at their own peril. If you asked a question he didn't like, but you asked it directly, you would get an answer of some sort. If you prefaced it, he'd take on the preface and dodge the question. His legal training did, in fact, serve him well in baseball.
In general, tactical questions were best saved for the next day. Obviously, if a tactical decision had a huge influence on the game, there was no choice but to ask it that night. Unfortunately, the answer was often something like, "It's what I thought gave us our best chance to win." What's really unfortunate is that's all fans saw.
In the next day's pregame session, if we brought up the same matter and asked for the thought process, he'd tell us. And there was always a plan. If there was one thing I admired most about La Russa as a tactician, it was that I never in 10 years saw him play a hunch. There was a reason for everything. You could disagree with the reason, but it was never "just because."
But then, that applied to nearly everything he did and said. La Russa was remarkably calculated in his interactions with media, his lineups, even hitting groups in Spring Training. Absolutely everything had a reason, and nothing was an accident. If a young player was in a hitting group with prominent veterans, there was a reason. If a starting pitcher was taking his PFPs with the relievers, there was a reason.
And there was a reason for every comment. In fact, sometimes he answered questions that we didn't ask. There were more than a few times in 10 years that La Russa really wanted to make a point -- for the fans to hear, or the team, or just one player. He'd wait for us to ask the appropriate question, and if we didn't, he'd answer it anyway.
This happened after a stretch where Jason Marquis "took a couple for the team," staying in to soak up innings in games where he was getting pounded. It happened once during Scott Rolen's last year in St. Louis. La Russa had a point he wanted to get out. He didn't just jump right into a soliloquy -- "I don't make speeches" was one of his most commonly used expressions -- but he wasn't going to wait all day.
So both times, and a few other times as well, he waited a while, then seized on the first question in the neighborhood of the topic. Then he ran with it. It wasn't for us, it was for the public. Something needed to be said, in his mind, and he said it.
If La Russa jumped you, and he jumped everyone on the beat at some point, it was no fun. I was yelled at in Atlanta over the coverage of the closer situation in 2008, over my questions following a loss in Houston in 2003, and quite a few other times. It also had an upside, though. He never apologized, but he made it up to you -- the guy who got yelled at seemed to have most-favored-reporter status for several days afterward.
And that may have exemplified the La Russa experience more than anything. Sometimes you got yelled at. Sometimes you had a really bad day at the ballpark. But it was totally worth it in the end.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.