In May, USF alumnus Tony La Russa was named Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he will oversee the attempted turnaround of a franchise with the current worst record in the MLB.
La Russa, a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer due for induction on July 27 and three-time World Series champion, is hoping to apply the work ethic he developed at USF to achieve success with the Diamondbacks, just as he did in a 33-year managerial career.
“You have to figure out what players you need in uniform and you need to get them to play the game correctly,” La Russa said in an interview with The Oracle. “It’s easy to say, but it’s really hard to do.”
Part of the reconstruction of the Diamondbacks involves drafting successful new players. They recently picked Lawrence Pardo, a former pitcher for the Bulls.
“He’s got a chance to make it,” La Russa said. “He wouldn’t have been drafted if he didn’t have the talent and now he has the opportunity to make something out of it.”
Turning around the Diamondbacks will not be easy, but the discipline and leadership skills he acquired at USF and in the major leagues could turn it into his next success story.
La Russa won his first World Series as manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1989, the second of three consecutive World Series appearances with the Athletics.
“It was a dream come true. I’ve dreamed of it ever since I was a kid,” La Russa said. “It was worth every bit of hard work and adversity that I went through to get there.”
He retired from managing in 2011 and had his jersey retired by the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom he won two World Series in 15 years as the coach.
“After 33 years of managing in the major leagues, it was time to pass the baton and look for some other kind of responsibility in baseball,” La Russa said. “You always have to be honest with yourself and I knew the time had come.”
It was a long journey to the Hall of Fame for La Russa, one that began 51 years ago as a professional baseball player who spent his free time going to college.
Unlike Pardo, La Russa never played at USF.
The Kansas City Athletics signed La Russa in 1962 as a middle infielder when he was just 17 years old. During the fall and winter, La Russa attended USF to obtain a bachelor’s degree in industrial management.
Playing baseball and attending college simultaneously was unheard of back then, but to La Russa, his education was important enough for him to spend the extra time to do both.
“It was a commitment I made to baseball and education,” La Russa said. “I had to focus on my education in the winter, but the education I received was worth it.”
Born and raised in Tampa, La Russa was drawn to USF because it was local to him and it was a new university on the rise.
“It had a really good reputation, it was young and I was fortunate enough to get my undergraduate education at a new school that had a lot of potential,” La Russa said. “It was just a really good experience.”
Though La Russa was fortunate enough to go to college, his baseball career prevented him from living the typical college lifestyle.
“Because I was playing baseball, I had no social interactions,” La Russa said. “I was either playing baseball, in class, or with my family so I wasn’t the typical student.”
He ended up playing at the professional level for 10 seasons, but never found true success as a player.
In 1973, he realized that playing baseball couldn’t support a family so he began attending Florida State for a law degree. In 1978, he started managing in the minor leagues, and his path back to the MLB took shape.
He quickly succeeded and became a manager with the Chicago White Sox in 1979.
“Managing took over and I haven’t used my law degree,” La Russa said. “I have my license to practice law and I pay the dues every year.”
La Russa made it back to USF last year for a fundraiser and was impressed with the growth it made since he left.
“It’s huge and it’s become very special,” La Russa said. “It had a lot of potential when I went and they have achieved all of that potential. It’s a wonderful school.”
While USF had a lot of potential back in the 1960s, so did La Russa. He said his work ethic was the driving force in his success as a player and manager. Graduating from college while playing baseball taught him that hard work can get you anything you want and that is exactly what happened to La Russa in his managerial career.