OAKLAND -- Mark McGwire stroked his goatee and furrowed his brow. He was asked to provide an example of Tony La Russa's brilliance as a manager, and McGwire pretended to be stumped.
After all, he only spent 18 years with La Russa as a player or a coach.
"Well,'' McGwire finally said, "there was that time in the 1992 playoffs when he had me bunt."
It's true. You could look it up. Big Mac really did play small ball.
In Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, the A's manager asked his 42-homer, 104 RBI man drop one down to get the potential winning run to third base. It almost worked, too, but pinch runner Eric Fox made an ill-advised dash toward home plate when Terry Steinbach followed with a sharp one-hopper to the shortstop.
"The third base coach said, 'No, no,'''' La Russa recalled. "Fox heard 'Go, go."
The slugger's bunt is just one of the tales we collected in advance of La Russa's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The former A's manager is being enshrined Sunday in Cooperstown, so we asked his notable players, and the man himself, to share their favorite stories from the dugout.
Here's the stuff that won't fit on his plaque:
(One of the defining moments of La Russa's tenure with the A's was the decision to convert Dennis Eckersley, a veteran starter, into a reliever. The right-hander was 32 by the time he got to Oakland in 1987 and just trying to stay employed. The next season, 1988, he led the league with 45 saves). Dennis Eckersley (A's reliever 1987-95): They didn't really approach me about becoming a reliever. (Fudge) no. It just sort of happened. When I got traded over there, it was at the end of spring training. So they already had their rotation. And I was coming off a bad year. And I wasn't throwing that great for the Cubs in spring training. So when I got here, they said, 'Just go out there and we'll figure this out. We'll find something for you.'
I just slowly found my way. And then (closer Jay Howell) got hurt, and I was dealin'. The timing was right. There was the opportunity and I was chomping because I was dying to turn my career around, anyway. So I just sort of slipped in there."
Rick Honeycutt (A's reliever, 1987-93, '95: It was just a large transformation for some of us. Eckersley, he had been a starter. He wasn't happy about being in the bullpen. Myself. Gene Nelson. We had Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret and Todd Burns. I mean, it was kind of a consistent group there. I think what made it work so well was that (pitching coach Dave) Duncan had a schedule with you. When the phone rang, everybody knew what order everybody was in and they were very consistent with it. Everybody's job was to get the ball to Eck."
(Eckersley saved 16 games in '87 and worked 115.2 innings. It was the next season, in '88, when he blossomed thanks to the way the A's used him. He pitched almost exclusively in the ninth-inning of save situation, which at the time was a novel concept. Eckersley worked only 72.2 innings).
La Russa: This why Dave Duncan is brilliant -- the greatest pitching coach of all-time. With Eck, the thing that happened was that Dave asked me: 'What do you think about Eck just pitching the ninth inning?' I said I didn't know. Dave said, 'I'm going to ask one more time, and this time you should think that it's a great idea.' So I did. Eckersley: The only reason I can say this is that Bobby (Welch) just passed away: At the end of the '87, I remember talking to Tony right after the last game of the season. He said, "Hey, listen, next year, what do you want to do?' And I remember saying, "I want to start." Tony agreed. But then he calls me two months later. And I said, "I know. I know. We just got Welchie."
General manager Sandy Alderson acquired Bob Welch in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Dec. 11, 1987, part of an offseason overhaul that also brought in influential veterans like Dave Henderson and Dave Parker. The '88 team went 104-58 and reached the World Series for the first time since 1974. La Russa: In 1988, after Sandy had that wonderful winter, we were really looking good on paper. I saw Dick Williams (then the Boston Red Sox manager) in spring training and he said, 'Man, it's a good-looking club but it's going to be a circus.' Because he thought it was going to be all show -- big hat, no cattle. About midseason, we swept the Red Sox and he walked into my office and he said: I was totally wrong. You guys are fun to watch. Dave Parker (A's outfielder 1988-89): Tony was great at handling egos. Very smart. He had to be, because we had an All-Star team. He brought us altogether and made his all a team. He delegated authority to his players. He was the most prepared manager I played for. He dotted every 'I' and crossed every 't.' Phillips: La Russa didn't have to manage the personalities much that year because we had a bunch of old pros who new how to play the game. Dave Parker ruled that clubhouse. Dave Henderson. Those guys kept everybody accountable and La Russa didn't ever have to really come into that room. And if he did come in, it wasn't real pleasant.
(McGwire, listed at 6-foot-5, said he was intimidated by La Russa's non-nonsense demeanor. But the manager had his lighter side, too. Players could press his buttons right back). La Russa: One time we were having a clubhouse meeting before a game. And I said what I had to say. And then I asked if anybody wanted to follow up. Carney Lansford stands up and says, 'Yeah, fellas. Let's just get so far ahead he can't screw it up.'
Dave Stewart, he was a little more subtle. If I had a bad day, he would walk by and say, 'Hey, did the gamblers get to you?' Stewart: We had a disagreement when he first joined the ballclub. I felt like pitchers had the right to protect their players whenever they wanted to (by hitting an opposing batter). And Tony said, 'Nope, that part of the game you leave to me.' We went back and forth and he finally said. 'You know what? When you get your own team, you can make your own damn rules." La Russa: They say I'm a good communicator, so I'll going to give you an example of how I communicated with Dave Stewart. He was a true No. 1. When he pitched, it was his ballgame until he got tired and told me he was done -- which for him was never.
So one day, everything against Stewart is being hit into the gaps. There's doubles, there's triples. It's about the fifth inning and it's 8-0. I asked (pitching coach) Dave Duncan and he said, "You get him. I'm afraid of him." So I go out there and he had his back to the dugout — probably because he was just watching another ball in the gap.
So he turns around with the ball and says — "Man, what are you doing here?" I said, "Look, I came to get you." He said. "Why?" I said, "I know you're not tired, but are outfielders are."
(Even on a team full of superstars, La Russa's best teams prided themselves on nuance. He insisted that even the mega-talents play fundamental baseball.) Dave Henderson (A's outfielder, 1988-93): Details. Always: Don't overlook the small details of your work and what you have to do. ... I think that's what gets overlooked in the whole scheme of things, when we have the fanfare of Canseco and McGwire and things like that, Dave Stewart. We pitched well. We threw strikes. We hit the cutoff man. We played defense. We played A-B-C baseball. Jose Canseco (A's outfielder, 1985-92, '97): What he taught me was to take the game seriously. There's a time to joke around and play around, but when you're between the white lines you have to take the game seriously.
And never come late to the ballpark. That was one of his biggest pet peeves -- "Never be late to the ballpark." ... So, yes, I had a few run-ins with Tony. You know traffic is bad out here! Tony Phillips (A's utility man, 1982-89, '99): What did I learn from Tony? What didn't I learn from Tony? He taught me everything. He taught me how to feel the energy of the game, the mood of the game, and what I could do to change it. He would say, 'When they're flat, let's get it going. Pop that ball around the infield." That's just one little thing, right? But it can raise the game to another level." Walt Weiss (A's shortstop, 1987-92): From Tony, we learned from the focus and the intensity that he brought every day. He never let his foot off the gas. I think we responded to that as a club. That's how he raised the bar. Tony would press your buttons to get you motivated, even if it was to tick you off a little bit.
Many of the players focused not on the way La Russa managed the game, but the way he managed people. Eckersley: It was the last day of a series in Cleveland, a getaway day, and we were going to Baltimore. And I remember who it was, The Governor — Jerry Browne — who took me deep for a three-run home run that cost us the game.
We got into Baltimore late. And I was crushed because I'd given up that home run. And Tony, he knew how I was — "sensitive" is not the right word -- but he knew how upset I got.
So I got to the hotel and all the keys are laid out, right? So I got my key and didn't think of it. And I got to my room and I opened it up and it said, 'Eck, you're the best."
What an effect that had. I had a tear in my eye. Because I'm down, and it just lifted me up. To me, that's managing, man. Carney Lansford (A's third baseman, 1983-91): He rejuvenated me. I knew from the first team meeting that we had that things were going to be run right. He laid out his expectations: You're going play the game hard and you're going to play the game right. If you can do that, you can play here. If you can't do that, find someplace else.
(La Russa didn't invent situational relievers, but he refined the way bullpens operate. The modern concept of using the closer just for one inning and just in save situations stems from the way the A's used Eckersley. La Russa also created the blueprint for modern set-up men.) Lansford: When I was with the Angels and he was managing the White Sox, he was the first manager I ever saw who was matching up from the seventh-inning on. That was kind of frustrating as a player because it slowed the game down so much. But later on you understand exactly why he's doing it." Eckersley: I saw Tony doing that long before he managed us, when he was in the White Sox. Because I'd be sitting in the dugout thinking, 'You over-managing mother (expletive). God, do we have to make a move to the left-hander? This game is rolling!' I wasn't thinking like a manager. I was thinking like a player. Honeycutt: It really always started with the starters: Stewart, Welch and Mike Moore. They were the main three and they were pitching deep into games. That allowed him to set up the bullpen. So Tony and Dave were just able to form a system where guys were able to just do their role. I knew my role — everybody knew their role.
(And that brings us back to the McGwire's bunt.) La Russa: There's another chapter to that story: In 2001 in St. Louis -- this was McGwire's last year — we're losing 1-0 in the a real good playoff series against Arizona.
In the top of the ninth, the leadoff hitter gets on and McGwire is due up. And he'd struck out three times because his back was killing him. So I pinch hit Kerry Robinson because all I wanted to do there is get the runner over.
So McGwire walks to the dugout. And when he gets there he says to me, "Why don't you just have me bunt?"
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.