In St. Louis, where I grew up, major league baseball is a polytheistic cult. Its deities include Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. (Albert Pujols is, of course, its fallen angel.) And its high priest from 1996 to 2011 was the Cardinals’ manager, Tony La Russa.
It took La Russa awhile to impose his sacerdotal authority. A vegetarian from California who loves animals but is not exactly warm and fuzzy himself, at first he seemed out of place in the Midwest. But his brainy intensity gradually won over all but diehard malcontents, and it didn’t hurt that during his tenure the Cardinals won three National League pennants and two World Series titles.
The second of those titles came last year, on the strength of a rally cluster that will be talked about for as long as baseball flourishes. In both the ninth and 10th innings of World Series Game 6, with the Texas Rangers almost tasting the sweetness of winning that game and, with it, the series, all that stood between the Cards and runner-up status was the “one last strike” that serves as the title of La Russa’s memoir. The first time, the hero was David Freese, who tripled in the tying run; the second time, it was Lance Berkman, who did the same with a single, after which Freese’s solo homer provided the winning run in the bottom of the 11th. A night later, the Cardinals overcame an early deficit — by that point, an ingrained habit of theirs — to win Game 7 and with it their 11th world championship, second only to the far-better-heeled New York Yankees.
What almost no one knew as St. Louisans partied that weekend was that La Russa had decided to retire after the season, at age 67. He could easily have made the announcement ahead of time (as the great Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones has done, transforming the 2012 National League season into a multi-city Chipperfest). But La Russa loathes distractions, especially self-generated ones, so the players and fans were given not even a hint that this was his swan song. He has used some of his leisure time to write this book, with help from St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports reporter Rick Hummel.
“One Last Strike” contains multiple references to the 2011 team’s “character.” What La Russa means by the term is twofold: that the players never gave up and that they took care of each other. The first quality is obvious from the team’s play. The second makes itself felt in La Russa’s touching account of shortstop Rafael Furcal committing an error that cost the Cardinals a game during the nail-biting last days of the regular season. (The Cardinals, you may recall, didn’t wrest a wild-card berth away from the collapsing Braves until the final day of regular play.) Furcal went into a funk so deep that La Russa got a warning call about him from an unnamed teammate. But the next day Furcal’s teammates put their arms around him in the clubhouse, reminding him of how many games he’d helped win, and the crisis abated.
Managers have to look after players during games, too. In “Three Nights in August,” Buzz Bissinger’s 2005 book about La Russa and the Cardinals, La Russa agonized out loud about how to respond when he suspected an opposing pitcher of intentionally throwing at a batter, for intimidation or revenge. La Russa elaborates on this point in “One Last Strike,” arguing that “with those inside pitches, our hitters’ physical safety was on the line.” In such a case, he reluctantly instructed his pitcher to retaliate by throwing at a selected opponent, though aiming for the torso, not the head.
Occasionally, “One Last Strike” canters along too fast. I wish La Russa had dwelt longer on Game 4 of the 2011 division series against the Phillies, particularly on the distraction provided by a squirrel, which streaked across the diamond in front of the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt while he was pitching to the Cards’ Skip Schumaker. Oswalt asked the umpire to nullify that pitch, the umpire refused, and Oswalt jawed some more. Asked about this later, Oswalt said, “I was wondering what size animal it needed to be” for a do-over to be granted. Cardinals fans made the squirrel a mascot, but you won’t find a word about the critter in “One Last Strike.”
If he skimps on color, La Russa takes time to give a feel for his strategizing. His four-page analysis of World Series Game 2, in which he had to factor in such niceties as the tendency of reliever Jason Motte to elevate the ball in the strike zone when he speeds up his delivery, illustrates how complex the game of baseball can be. Speeding up would have gotten the ball to the catcher faster, thus lessening the chance that fleet-footed Ian Kinsler could steal second base; on the other hand, elevated balls are easier to hit. La Russa’s intricate reasoning is impressive, but the Cardinals lost the game anyway.
For all his cerebration, La Russa can get emotional about his job — indeed, almost mystical. His passion for baseball comes through in a description of what he felt, and what his body did, when Freese took the swing that won Game 6: “In situations like that, it’s almost as if the ball has some gravitational pull on you. As it climbs, it lifts you up, body and spirit.” For those moved by comebacks in sports, “One Last Strike” is a book to lift the spirit. Texas Rangers fans are excused.
ONE LAST STRIKE
Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season
By Tony La Russa
with Rick Hummel
Morrow. 420 pp. $27.99