Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: One Last Strike (2012)

By Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel

Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals will always remember the 2011 baseball season. Yes, they won the World Series - but the Cardinals have done that before with some degree of regularity. But it's how they did it that will put a smile on every Cardinal fan's face.

St. Louis was hovering just above .500 in late August, apparently out of the playoff picture. Then the Cardinals got hot, the Braves got cold, and somehow, some way, St. Louis grabbed a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season. Then in the playoffs, the Cardinals survived the early rounds of the playoffs to reach the World Series against Texas. You may have heard that the Cardinals were down to their last strike a couple of times, but fought back somehow to eventually win it all.

The conclusion was the perfect exit line, and manager Tony La Russa used it - retiring right after the end of the Series. He followed that by writing a book that's mostly about the magical season, "One Last Strike."

It was always a bit difficult to get a good read on La Russa from the distance of a fan, and the book gives the impression that he liked it that way. La Russa clearly is a very intelligent man, and he took his job very seriously. He expected everyone to do the same. Team members were certainly allowed to enjoy a particular moment, but they had to remember that the overall focus was winning that last game of the season if possible. In this case, the Cardinals had to win the next-to-last game in dramatic fashion to get to that last game. They did win that Game Six in the most extraordinary way imaginable, setting up a less dramatic but still exciting Game Seven of the Series. As you'd expect, the story of those two games is the best part of the book.

If this story is any indication, and I'm quite certain that it is, managing in the major leagues is more complicated than even big fans can imagine. The strategic parts of the job are easy to second-guess from the stands, but much goes into every decision - and the decision can go a different way depending on the circumstances. There's a fascinating story about a simple stolen base in the World Series that might have been prevented had strategy gone a different way - and La Russa beat himself up a bit over it until he came to terms with the fact that he made the best decision he could at the time. As he writes, these aren't chess pieces out there - they are people, and it's his job to put them in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

The other big part of the job that is highlighted is the interpersonal relationships involved. La Russa chose a group of veteran players to be "co-signers," people to react to situations and ideas. He also made sure to keep lines of communication open whenever possible. That's not easy in these days of agents and fans telling players how great they are, but La Russa obviously had a long record of success to use as a took to convince those same players to play the game correctly.

La Russa concentrates on those areas here, which in itself is interesting. Books by Terry Francona and Joe Torre had much more attention paid to media-related issues, which may be the price they paid for serving as a manager in Boston and New York respectively.

La Russa also rarely goes back into his own personal history much here. He played in the majors for several years, and then moved into managing to start what turned out to be a 35-year career. There are references to those times, but mostly to make a point about today. It sounds as if La Russa might have another book or two in him.

"One Last Strike" is a bit on the dry side - not many funny anecdotes, and few stories about the other members of the Cardinals' organization. So take it for what it is - a serious primer about how a great manager (third all-time in wins, I believe) went about his business. What's more, Cardinal fans will love the ending.

Four stars

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