The Lucky Card

Another famous alum.

Another hometown hero.

His name isn’t on every cover of every magazine in every aisle of every grocery store, but USF has a hero to look up to, not because of athletics, money or even ridiculous good looks. Students and alumni — at least those who keep up with baseball from the Midwest — know about the best team in the National League. The team that has a nine-and-a-half-game lead in the NL Central division. The team that was swept by the Boston Red Sox in last year’s World Series.

But it’s also the team that is coached by another famous alum, another hometown hero.

Tony La Russa, of West Tampa baseball and Jefferson High fame, has managed the St. Louis Cardinals for 10 seasons and been a major league coach a remarkable 26 years, all the while making the postseason 11 times.

And while it seems unrealistic — even a tad unbelievable — that one of the winningest coaches in Major League history sat for hours in some of the same classrooms that are still on campus, he has been and continues to be successful in professional baseball without ever taking a single at-bat in a Bulls’ uniform.

Actually, he never even stepped on Red McEwen Field.

“I signed right out of high school,” said La Russa, who’s been to four World Series but only has one ring to show for it, from when he managed the Oakland A’s 4-0 sweep over the San Francisco Giants in 1989, the Bay Bridge Series.

“It was different for me because I signed right out of high school. I couldn’t play in college; I was already getting paid.”

In 1962, before he donned his cap and gown, he signed a major league contract with the Kansas City Athletics and only a year later, made his professional debut but did not play again for the A’s until they moved to Oakland. La Russa finished out his playing career, which lasted about 16 years as an infielder, with Atlanta and the Chicago Cubs.

But he graduated.

La Russa earned a degree in industrial management from USF, didn’t want to stop there, and picked up a law degree from FSU in 1978. He went on to pass the bar exam a year later, which makes him the fifth and presently the only major league manager to also be a lawyer.

“I’ve had a lot of luck,” La Russa said. “I’ve always been extremely lucky in anything that I do.”

La Russa has enjoyed this past weekend in his old hometown — he resides in Danville, Calif., in the off-season — but he remembers his roots and what Tampa is still offering to its natives.

“I’ve got a lot of friends and family here, and I had to make sure, or at least try, to see them all,” said La Russa, whose Cardinals swept the Devil Rays this weekend with Sunday’s 8-5 win. “I know (USF Athletic Director) Doug Woolard from St. Louis, when he was over there (at the University of St. Louis). I read (in the media) that I was going to have dinner with him, but I had some more family to see and unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see him. We’re good friends.”

Not only does La Russa think Woolard “is doing a great job (at USF) like he did at St. Louis,” he has kept up with the events surrounding his alma mater and likes what’s happening to the school this upcoming fall.

“I drove through five or six years ago,” La Russa said. “A lot’s changed. It’s not the same because a lot’s happened (over there).

“I like that move to the Big East. It’s a good move, I think. About three years ago, I went to dinner. Met the football coach (Jim Leavitt) and I think the president of the University (Judy Genshaft).

“And I’ve met the baseball coach there, too. (Eddie Cardieri) is a very solid guy.”

La Russa doesn’t forget his USF days, though he says school wasn’t too hectic for him, because he played baseball a lot while taking classes.

“(The campus) was new, but you could tell it had tremendous potential. But I was already in pro-ball, so pretty much I used to drive up, go to classes, then go to the instructional league or spring training. I never really experienced campus or college that much.

“I lived in Tampa, but I was going to school, then going to play ball. But you could just tell the place had great potential. I mean, look at it now.”

His USF days are long since passed, though he has one regret.

“I signed to play ball the night of graduation. I shouldn’t have done that,” La Russa said. “It would have been more fun and probably more productive baseball-wise if I had played college ball some place. I should have played college ball instead of signing, but it was too late then.”

La Russa’s picture hangs in an administrative building at USF, along with other famous alum to have graced the largest university campus in the state of Florida.

Terry “Hulk” Hogan is next to him, but La Russa acknowledges more than all the classes he took, or all the credits he earned, or all the degrees that hang in his office back at Busch Stadium. He boils it down to one thing, something he always tells people who ask and want to listen.

Something that can’t be put on paper. Something that’s certainly not offered as a degree. Luck.

“What you bring to a baseball game is if you’re a good ball player,” said La Russa, who passed Bucky Harris as the fourth-winningest coach in managerial history with 2,158 wins Sunday. “And what you bring as a manager is if you have good players. I’ve just been lucky. I’ve been real lucky, in which I’ve been in good situations with good management, good players, good teams.”

Another lucky alum.