October 17, 2012

Cardinals, Cats, and Rally Squirrels: Learning to Like La Russa

Game 4 of the 2011 National League Division Series was do or die for St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony La Russa. None of his players knew it, but La Russa had made up his mind to retire at the end of the 2011 season. All the Phillies needed was a win and they would take the series 3 games to 1 and La Russa’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy career would be over. The facts say that the Cardinals won that game because of timely hitting and strong relief pitching: “our bullpen came through for us,” as La Russa makes clear in his new book One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season (Morrow $27.99). The Cards went on to beat the Phils in the NLDS, the Brewers in the National League Championship Series, and the Texas Rangers in the World Series, after turning it around with a crushing three-time come-from-behind win in Game 6.

Facts are facts and myths are myths, however, and the mythic version says the Cardinals’ fortunes changed in that key game 4 when a squirrel romped across home plate, so distracting pitcher Roy Oswalt that the Phils manager Charlie Manuel protested to the umpire. When questioned about the incident after the game, La Russa suggested an amorous relationship between the Rally Squirrel, as it was by then already known to Cardinal fans, and Torty, slugger Alan Craig’s pet tortoise (whenever Craig came up to hit, his teammates would shout, “Do it for Torty!”). After Phillie fans threw a stuffed squirrel into the Cardinals’ bull pen, the relief corps made a good luck mascot of it, and were all but unhittable as the Cards proceeded to take the NLCS against the Brewers. During the celebration, the stuffed squirrel was sprayed with beer and champagne.

To say that the Rally Squirrel impacted the Cardinals’ 2011 championship run might sound a bit fanciful, but in the realm of the Net, strange things were happening. A Twitter account was started for the Rally Squirrel on the day it raced across home plate and within two days it had 11,000 followers. By late October the number had more than doubled. Soon the squirrel had its own theme song, its own Topps baseball card, and t-shirts were being sold in the thousands. Three days after the Cardinals won the World Series, St. Louis kids were trick or treating in Rally Squirrel costumes. And if you look closely you can see the Rally Squirrel in mid-romp engraved onto the Cardinals’ World Championship rings.

Can squirrels romp? Google Rally Squirrel on YouTube and see for yourself. This squirrel is an athlete, romping, jumping, as close to flying as grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) can get.

There’s no mention of the Rally Squirrel in La Russa’s book, but don’t let that fool you. What other baseball luminary would attract such a creature but the one who started the Animal Rescue Foundation with his wife, Elaine, in 1991 after a stray cat wandered onto the field. “The cat was threatened with being put down,” La Russa says in One Last Strike, so “Elaine and I found a home for her.”

La Russa is also seriously into music. Among his friends are Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, jazz bassist Christian McBride, and Carlos Santana, who gave the Cardinal skipper a medallion necklace he’d worn during a September 2011 concert La Russa attended. “It had two dragons etched into the surface,” La Russa writes, “and Carlos told me that it would give me good spirit. I wore that thing every day from that point on, through the end of the World Series.”

So here’s this guy, he’s won two World Series titles in five years, he’s conversant with rock and roll, and loves animals (he travels, he admits, with a menagerie), he’s a voracious reader, has a law degree, and manages to keep all those player egos in a fine balance through unthinkably high-pressure situations — why is he so hard to like? Why does he radiate uptightness? Why do his expressions perennially hover somewhere between dour and dire?

It took me, a lifelong Cardinal fan, 15 years to begin to warm to Tony La Russa, and it wasn’t until reading One Last Strike that I really began liking him.

In Hemingway’s Time

In Ernest Hemingway’s story, “The Three Day Blow,” Nick Adams and his pal Bill are drinking Scotch and talking of books, baseball, and thwarted love. When Nick wonders if the Cards will ever win a pennant,” Bill says, “Not in our lifetime,” and Nick says, “Gee, they’d go crazy.”

In 1926, two years after the story appeared in the small press edition of In Our Time, the Cards won not only their first National League pennant but the first of eleven World Championships. You know St. Louis went crazy in 1926, but in 1985 for baseball fans everywhere and especially St. Louis Cardinals fans, Nick’s words were echoed by Cardinal-play-by-play announcer Jack Buck’s cry of “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” when the most unlikely of sluggers, Ozzie Smith, hit the walk-off home run that deflated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs.

Stunning Washington

Though the title, One Last Strike, refers to last year’s dramatics, it works as well for what happened in the elimination game of the 2012 NLDS around 12:30 a.m. October 12, when the Cardinals were down to their last strike twice. The Washington fans were on their feet, ready to explode in a perfect storm of joy; ready to, yes, go crazy. The stadium was roaring, their team a mere strike or pop up or ground out or fly ball away from surviving to play in the League Championship Series.

Cardinal fans meanwhile are about to experience what Nick Adams and Jack Buck were talking about; but they don’t know it yet; they’re waiting for the axe to fall, hopes dashed, elimination looming. If you want to truly experience going crazy, it helps if your team is down to the last strike, your heart’s in the basement, one level above the abyss. As high as the home crowd is, you’re way low, way way down, hanging on to a feather-faint thread of faith. At the same time, the memory of last October’s miracle has you feeling an irrepressible surge of it-could-happen-again-ness.

And then it does. Happen. Again!

In the top of the ninth, two runs behind, post-season miracle worker Carlos Beltran leads off with a double, and here it comes: two quick outs, two masterfully drawn walks, a pair of two-run singles, and it’s all over, and so suddenly that your joy more than overwhelms you, it runs past you, you can’t keep up with it, all you have breath to say is “I don’t believe it!” Because the very thing you’ve been wishing for, urging, willing, aching for with everything you have, has been given to you and to thousands of friends you’ll never know, those multitudes of Cardinal fans in and out of St. Louis you’ve bonded with in this moment, all sharing the same ecstasy, just as you did last October 27 and 28.

La Russa Smiles

I doubt that even Hemingway could have done justice to the sixth game of the 2011 Series, already being touted as one of the most, if not the most, exciting ever played. How then does the manager deal with what’s happening on the field in the late innings of an historic game? Aware of what he’s up against, La Russa titles the chapter, “You Had to See It for Yourself” and prefaces it by describing how he dealt with the disaster-divided World Series of 1989 when he was manager of the Oakland Athletics. In fact he’s making the Loma Prieta earthquake the opening act for David Freese’s two big moments, the first a game saver, the second a game and Series winner, given its impact on the opposition’s morale.

So, welcome to brink of elimination, “potentially the last hope for Cardinals Nation,” Texas having just taken a two-run lead, it’s the existential moment: “One strike left in the season.” At this point, with the game on the line, La Russa inserts a prosaic managerial observation: “I hoped that David would get his front foot set sooner. On the swinging strike he hadn’t.” If you could see his face as he thinks this thought, you would witness Grimness and Glowering writ large, which is why fans familiar with La Russa’s perennially thorny demeanor will appreciate the way he prefaces Freese’s game-saving hit: “David Freese then did what many people don’t think is possible. He made me smile.”

Freese made La Russa smile! Whee! Be still, my heart! The man has just saved the season by lining a triple off the wall. For that he gets a smile? How about a Thomas Wolfian goat cry? Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp? How about “an outburst of profane joy” like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man? How about going crazy?

But La Russa maintains his managerial cool. “When Freese extended his hands and stepped slightly toward the outside corner, setting that front foot,” he continues, letting us know that Freese has done exactly what his manager hoped he would, “he hits a fastball,” the “sound of the contact … so pure” that La Russa first thinks it might be a walk-off home run instead of a game-tying triple.

Finally, after the Cards come unbelieavably back from another two-run deficit, it’s the 11th inning, with Freese leading off. La Russa writes: “I sensed in the ninth inning when we’d tied it that people were going to talk about this game for a long time. When we did it again in the tenth, I knew that people were going to talk about this game forever.” Now comes the coup de grace. As La Russa describes it, Freese “hit a fastball on the inner half and crushed it to straightaway center field onto the grass of the hitters’ backdrop. 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. The guys at the rail rose up on their feet, craned their necks, and raised their arms above their heads.”

What we see, what we feel, is pure baseball euphoria. Like La Russa and everyone in the dugout, we jump to our feet when Freese connects, knowing it’s gone, it’s over, once again joy outruns us, flying, soaring beyond us, we can’t keep up with it, but when the small white object hits the brilliant greensward of the “hitter’s backdrop” above the center field wall and four or five kids or grown-up kids come tumbling out of the stands after it, we’re out there rolling around with them, kids again, like David, the big kid who grew up in St. Louis, rounding the bases and then charging, dancing a modified horn pipe down the third base line, flinging his cap at his feet as he runs the happy gauntlet of his teammates.

La Russa admits wanting to join the mob jumping and dancing. Instead he hugs Dave Duncan, his longtime pitching coach and confidant, “marveling at the wonder of it all.” And then he smiles. A big smile, a smile to remember.


One Last Strike features an introduction by third-generation Cardinal fan John Grisham, whose first baseball novel, Calico Joe, has just been published. You can see Hemingway in his Nick Adams up-in-Michigan days in “Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time,” which is on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library through October 31.