LIVERMORE -- It was in the middle of an Oakland A's home game back in 1990 when Tony La Russa first set eyes on the catalyst for a new endeavor -- no pun intended.
A stray cat, later dubbed Evie, somehow had snuck onto the field, halting play. La Russa scooped up the frightened feline and took it home, quickly discovering that Contra Costa County had a major shortage of no-kill shelters. So he and wife Elaine ventured to create their own, founding the Animal Rescue Foundation in 1991.
More than 20 years later, ARF's 38,000-square-foot headquarters in Walnut Creek is a center for homeless or abandoned animals whose time staying in shelters has run out. La Russa, who currently is looking to supply companion animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, keeps busy as the nonprofit's chairman of the board. He jokingly refers to his winters as the "ARF season."
"It's a commitment our family has made," La Russa said. "ARF is every bit as demanding as baseball."
The latter, however, took center stage for La Russa's talk Wednesday evening in Livermore, the second in the Bankhead Theater's annual Rae Dorough Speaker Series. Sporting his three World Series rings that glinted and shimmered with each movement of his hands, La Russa entertained a crowd of 300 with the wisdom he'd gleaned over five decades in Major League Baseball.
As a player, La Russa was self-admittedly mediocre, but he developed a grit and determination that carried over to a wildly successful managing career, including six league championships and three World Series titles with the A's and St. Louis Cardinals.
Recently nominated for the Baseball Hall of Fame, La Russa is a virtual lock to join the ranks of the immortal skippers, joining names such as Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams and Earl Weaver -- the mentors he credits with teaching him the craft.
"It was like going to graduate school," La Russa said. "I don't think you're born to be a leader. ... It's something you can learn, but it starts with a decision and a willingness to step out there and take charge."
During his talk, La Russa said his toughest challenge as a baseball manager was keeping his players away from distractions and on the same page. He imparted his keys to leadership: personalize your approach, communicate, embrace pressure and hold yourself accountable.
"If you're willing to be honest, you won't fool yourself," he said "As a leader, you should never ask an individual or a team to do something that you're not willing to do."
Although he is committed to his retirement from managing, La Russa remains on special assignment to Major League Baseball, where he's part of a three-member committee exploring the expansion of instant replay. The protocols are being tested in the Arizona Fall League.
"It will be historic," La Russa said. "It's going to have a hiccup or two or three, but I think it will have a positive outcome. Those really controversial plays that influence the competition, we're going to correct."
At a post-talk Q&A, La Russa addressed the steroid issue, defending the brawn of former A's players such as Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco as products of legal creatine use and an advanced weight training program run by strength-and-conditioning coach Dave McKay.
"I know we never cheated," La Russa said. "Did McGwire do steroids as well? I don't know, but he didn't do it in our program."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation's 23rd annual Stars to the Rescue concert and fundraiser will be Jan. 4 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Singer-keyboardist Bruce Hornsby, former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and standup comedian Allan Havey are scheduled to perform. Tickets go on sale in December. Proceeds will go to ARF. For more information or sponsorship opportunities, go to www.arf.net.