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Big League manager meets Petaluma Little League champs

Tony La Russa, who managed the A's to the 1989 World Series title and St. Louis to championships in 2006 and 2011, speaks in Petaluma on Thursday night.

BETH SCHLANKER/PD
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.

PETALUMA - Tony La Russa walked into the back room on the second floor Thursday night of McGuire's Irish Pub and was immediately greeted by the Petaluma National Little Leaguers, the baseball team that finished second in the recent Little League World Series national championship.

“Happy birthday, Tony! Happy birthday to you!” they sang. The former A's manager turned 68 Thursday. These Petaluma kids keep handing out the love.

A half hour later after the meet-and-greet, La Russa walked across Kentucky Street to Copperfield's. About 200 people rose from their aluminum chairs and gave La Russa a standing ovation. A lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame manager when his time rolls around, La Russa has stories, for the kids and the grown-ups. You don't win three World Series, have the third-most victories of any manager in baseball history and manage Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco without stories.

That's why his book - “One Last Strike” — is 420 pages.

“Remember how they called Oakland the Amazin' A's back in the '70s?” La Russa asked the Copperfield's crowd. “Well, this Oakland team is the Amazingest A's.”

Seven hours earlier, in a phone interview, I asked La Russa when was the last time he saw an underdog like the 2012 A's make it to the postseason. La Russa didn't mention the last team he managed, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who won the World Series after being 10½ games out of first place, made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, and won it all despite being down to their last strike twice in the Series.

“The Mets in '69,” La Russa answered.

This quite likely is the best compliment the A's have received thus far. The 1969 New York Mets are the gold standard by which all rags-to-riches teams are measured. The '69 Mets are ExhibitA for any team in any sport who find themselves going it alone, surrounded by giggles and disrespect.

Of course, the '69 Mets had two future Hall of Fame pitchers, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.

And of course Oakland needs to win it all, like those 1969 Mets did, beating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in five games, to solidify La Russa's comparison.

And that is ridiculous. Right?

Oakland, the 2012 World Series champion?

La Russa doesn't think so.

“Any team that is good enough to make the postseason is good enough to win it all,” said La Russa, his Cardinals team the most recent example of that.

Sure, anybody's got a chance. That sounds like a managerial bromide.

What follows doesn't.

“The schedule the A's played in September was totally unfair,” La Russa said.

During one September stretch, the A's played 10 consecutive road games against Detroit, the Yankees and Texas, all playoff teams. Of the 28 games in September, 17 were on the road. Yet, the A's went 17-11 against seven teams that posted an aggregate 70 games over .500 by season's end, four of them headed to the postseason.

“Against those odds, they made it,” La Russa said. “You don't do that with luck.”

Like anyone who followed the Oakland Athletics this season, La Russa found himself growing more and more interested and impressed.

“Around mid-season I saw their pitching,” La Russa said, “and I thought they could finish .500. They hit like I did as a player.”

And then the transformation took place. Confidence spread to other parts of the team. An every-day lineup, free from injuries, solidified. What La Russa saw then, opened his eyes, big-time.

“I see them digging their heels in on every at-bat, then letting it fly,” he said. “I don't see casual at-bats. They don't give away at-bats. That's what I always preached to my teams. Play every game with a sense of urgency. Play as if it's the last game you'll ever play. That's what the A's are doing. I like that a lot.”

La Russa, owner of a law degree, is not one usually given to finding the right words for the right explanation. When he spoke of the A's five-rookie pitching staff, he gushed like a new father.

“They attack the strike zone,” La Russa said.

“The fact they are using so many young (rookie) pitchers to do it, that's unusual. Not a lot of grizzled veterans on the team. It's not easy to score on them.”

La Russa is going to stay in the Bay Area through the first round of the playoffs, as he continues his book signing tour to Corte Madera, Danville, Fremont and San Francisco. Retirement has treated La Russa well. He doesn't look or act like someone who managed 33 big-league seasons.

A man who keeps his radar up, La Russa nonetheless was quite comfortable Thursday night. He spoke and answered questions for 70 minutes and would have gone longer if given the opportunity.

He was taken away from the Petaluma Little League shindig, as well, but not before he left the party momentarily to go fetch his three World Series championship rings. The kids wanted to see them. Of course they did.

In this town, considering the stir of energy the kids have created, it's not every day people around here get to meet someone who's even more famous than the Little League players from Petaluma National.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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