Those were the words used by none other than Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa to describe yours truly after the team’s 11-6 victory over the Florida Marlins last night.
It was a hard-fought but good win for the Cards. Todd Wellemeyer got the start in place of John Smoltz, who has a sore shoulder. Wellemeyer, who was bumped from the rotation even before Smoltz was acquired from the Boston Red Sox, promptly gave up six earned runs and only lasted four innings. After that, five St. Louis relievers combined to shut down the Marlins, while the Cardinal offense piled seven runs on Florida starter Ricky Nolasco and another four on reliever Matt Lindstrom.
We visited with some friends after the game, but our last stop was a restaurant we frequent near Busch Stadium. The only patron in the place was none other than LaRussa, who had just finished dinner and was taking in the Monday Night Football game featuring the San Diego Chargers vs. the Oakland Raiders in Oakland.
Obviously we didn’t want to be gushing fans so we sat at a table behind him, but since the place was empty we all were watching the game and discussing it. LaRussa was rooting for the Raiders, of course. I root for the St. Louis Rams, so I know what it’s like to have no hope. But the Raiders made a game of it, and LaRussa was fired up on every dramatic play. I could tell the guy is a huge sports fan, his professional presence in baseball aside. But the manager in him did come out when Oakland scored late to take a 20-17 lead and the Raiders were celebrating like they’d just won the game (there were more than two minutes left). LaRussa commented on the excessive celebration and how he wouldn’t let it happen on his team.
LaRussa spoke very fondly of Oakland and the Athletics teams from the 80′s and early 90′s he managed. The Oakland Coliseum (or whatever it’s called these days) is home to both the Raiders and the A’s, so when the Raiders play it’s like the groundscrew paints the gridiron lines over the baseball field. I asked him about the condition of that field when the football and baseball seasons overlap, and he said it’s terrible. He also said his daughter was at the football game last night.
While we were sitting there, he made a phone call to “Jimmy” and congratulated him on the big win earlier. Then he told us it was his good friend Jim Leyland he’d just called…the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Awesome.
We weren’t there very long, and it’s not like we shared a table with Tony LaRussa and had this in-depth conversation. It was a very normal interaction like you’d expect to have at any restaurant or sports bar when you come across someone with similar interests. The names and occupations were glittery, of course, but when the uniform is replaced with jeans and a button-down shirt he’s just a regular guy, and very personable…not at all like the stony-glare Tony LaRussa you see in the dugout or postgame press conference.
We talked Cardinal baseball, of course, too. He offered info about how the rotation shapes up for the coming series against the Cubs (looks like Smoltz will be back). And that’s when he got me. Wellemeyer’s struggles were apparent, even from the left field bleachers. He was getting hit hard all night. So I thought I’d take the opportunity, since I had the attention of the Cardinal manager, to toss him a question. “Let me ask you,” I said, “why Wellemeyer got the start tonight instead of Hawksworth. I’m just asking as a curious fan.” And that’s when he said I was clueless.
My rationale (which I failed to make known to the skipper) is that Hawksworth was a starter in AAA, even though he’s been a rock out of the Cards’ bullpen. If a spot start was needed, why not give the kid a shot? He certainly couldn’t be any worse than Wellemeyer, and he’d probably be good for 5 innings or so. As it happened, Hawksworth picked up the win after pitching 1.1 innings in relief of Wellemeyer. But LaRussa said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that if Hawksworth makes the start, he’s toast for the rest of the week…and he’s been so good out of the bullpen, why mess with that? The more I thought about it, I realized that the extension of that thought was what to do after taking Hawksworth out of this hypothetical start…bring in Wellemeyer? I’m telling myself that LaRussa was partly messing with me with the “clueless” jab, but he was absolutely correct…which is why he’s bound for the Hall of Fame, and I’m just a blogger with season tickets. LaRussa’s method got them the win; who knows what my method would have yielded.
I’m not sure if we’d gotten the same interaction had LaRussa known I’d get up this morning and blog about my experience. I know athletes/coaches and the media are often at odds, and sometimes enemies. Not that I’m “media” per se…but someone is reading this right now, so essentially I’m reporting to the public. And that’s the similarity, I think, between “regular people” like us and “stars” like Tony LaRussa. Had we been obnoxious fans, we’d have promptly been thrown out (or LaRussa would have left). Had I acted like a member of the media and peppered him with questions, I’d have been treated as such…good or bad. But because we talked to him in a rational manner, he talked with us in a rational manner. That was better than any autograph or photo we could have obtained from him.