La Russa talks star-studded 'feel-good' event

White Sox skipper's annual charity gathering supports Animal Rescue Foundation

November 24th, 2021

LAS VEGAS -- When Tony La Russa was asked to describe his Leaders and Legends event, running from Nov. 18-21 in Las Vegas in support of his Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), the White Sox manager’s detailed and proud response covered close to 10 minutes.

“I could go on and on. I could talk to you for hours,” said La Russa during a phone interview following the three days of activities. “It’s ridiculous. It’s so good.”

La Russa’s effusive description was aimed at the speakers who comprise this weekend -- without compensation, as La Russa pointed out -- and the people who attend to take in their words of wisdom. During this past weekend at Resorts World located on the Las Vegas strip, the list of celebrities in attendance ranged from Howard Schultz, the former CEO and chairman of Starbucks, to Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott.

Andy Roddick, who won the 2003 U.S. Open and finished as the runner-up in four other tennis Majors, did a virtual panel -- or "locker room sessions" as they are called at Leaders and Legends -- with a family commitment keeping him from joining the others in-person. There were military heroes making up an important component in Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipient Florent Groberg, who is a retired U.S. Army captain, and Tom Satterly, a highly decorated Command Sgt. Major who served in the Delta Force.

“They tell their story,” La Russa said. “That’s really the reason we are there.”

Closer Liam Hendriks, third-base coach Joe McEwing, first-base coach Daryl Boston and television analyst Steve Stone presented a White Sox component, with McEwing, as an example, discussing the work put in by shortstop Tim Anderson to become one of the faces of baseball. The weekend closed with NBA Hall of Famer and charismatic broadcaster Charles Barkley being interviewed by John Salley, which probably was worth the price paid to attend in and of itself.

“You couldn’t have done any better. It was just amazing,” said La Russa of that final interview. “The original concept is still the same: People that pay to come, they show up on Thursday [for a] welcome reception, and then Friday and Saturday morning, you have a leader and legend, and they present 45 minutes.

“Talk for 30 or 35, and then there’s a 'Q and A' interaction with the audience. And the legend, it’s a combination of military, business, sports, adventures -- a lot of variety.”

A gala takes place on Friday and Saturday night, with food and hotel stay for two provided as part of the fee. Leaders and Legends is in its 10th year, with ARF having started in 1991, featuring the mission of “People rescuing companion animals,” as La Russa explained.

“What we do then, and still do, is virtually every animal we take in comes off the list where 24 hours later, it would be euthanized,” La Russa said. “In like Year 3, we learned how it’s almost magical -- the effect of what unconditional love of a dog or cat can do for people who are hurt.

“So, we added the ‘People rescuing animals, animals rescuing people.’ We started out putting a really good temperament dog or cat with kids, going into hospitals, seniors away from their homes, a lot of education.”

Ten years ago, La Russa and ARF also began a Pets and Vets program, which is “a service providing emotional support animals to U.S. military heroes,” per the ARF website. The program transforms rescue dogs into trained service animals for “veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, anxiety, severe depression and more,” per the site.

This additional program features the slogan “Rescuing lives at both ends of the leash.”

“If you take a dog that we rescue that 24 hours later would be euthanized, we match the dogs with the veterans, and one of the unique things about it is the matching program includes training, so they really become family,” La Russa said. “There’s no cost, which is probably the most important part.

“As you know, if the dog has any kind of health issues, the veterinarian cost can be really expensive. Our program includes, for the life of the dog, we would take care of all the veterinarian costs. We are into the 10th year, so as a number of veterans have grown, it becomes an expensive program.”

Leaders and Legends became a funding source primarily for that program, with the very first event featuring Jim Brown and Bill Russell among the guests. Joe Torre, George Will and Ari Fleisher were in Las Vegas for the 2021 get-together, with La Russa, who has been a leader in the dugout for 34 years with three World Series titles and 2,821 victories, paying close attention.

“I take notes all the time, absolutely,” La Russa said. “It’s a real feel-good thing, and we’ll do it again next year.”