One Last Strike

by Tony La Russa


I have two obsessions: reading and Cardinals baseball. So this book is a guilty pleasure for me, especially given that I had heard it wasn’t that great. I wouldn’t have read it except that my uncle gave me a copy, which made me feel obligated. But hey, I don’t need to defend myself to you!

In any case, the book lived down to its critiques. It was flat, uninspired, disorganized and trite. A red flag came less than twenty pages in when he said “I’m not going to. . . talk here to any great degree about specific incidents involving particular players as they relate to this issue of a decline in team cohesiveness. . .” Why not? That’s why people read these books: to get the inside dirt!

You then know, by his own admission, that the book won’t contain much beyond platitudes and generalizations. He even admits it later on, talking about the Cubs series that summer: “Cliches are born of truth.” Yes, we all know that, but that doesn’t make them interesting to read, so please find another way to describe your experience.

Perhaps there’s no way to do it in prose (although I doubt it), but to turn something as amazing as the Cards’ 2011 World Series run into this boring account is a pretty remarkable feat. I have to think that ghost writer Rick Hummel deserves plenty of blame as well, for not eliciting a more interesting story. I’m not sure what makes someone a Hall-of-Fame sports writer, but whatever it is isn’t on display here. Knowing what I know of Tony, it wouldn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t allow it to be more interesting. But still, a good writer has either got to find a way or let a bad writer do it.

Here, for example, is the passage concerning David Freese’s now-legendary walk-off homerun, a moment that every baseball fan is aware of, which occurred in the 11th inning, after the Cardinals had come back from two-run deficits TWICE on their very last strike of the game, once each in the ninth and tenth innings:

David Freese led off for us against Mark Lowe, who mixed a mid-nineties fastball with a very sharp breaking slider. . . I watched Lowe intently, looking to see if he was around the plate, trying to figure out if the hit-and-run would be a good option. Descalso was in the hole, and he was our best chance to drive in a run if we got the man to second. Yadi liked the hit-and-run, and so that worked in the favor of hit-and-run. After Descalso was Jay and Westbrook. If it came down to it.

Three pitches later, David Freese did a solo version of the hit-and-run. He was soon joined by every one of his teammates in doing that. He hit a fastball on the inner half and crushed it to straightaway center field onto the grass of the hitters’ backdrop. p377

Not real exciting, is it? He barely even addresses how such an incredible feat made him feel. To be fair, the narration of Freese’s ninth-inning game-tying double is much better. But still, so much of the book is like the above, giving the impression that Tony is just going through the motions to relate a story. Part of it is that Tony’s notorious surliness is omnipresent, like he’s condescending to us and he wants to make it as unpleasant for us as it is distasteful for him.

Tony’s prickliness is also on display infrequently. Or, as he puts it: “I know that the anger and frustation sometimes surfaced more readily than my more positive attributes. Whether I should be criticized for that, I can’t really say.” Except that you did just say, indirectly, that you think it’s bullshit.

He does the same thing with the Ozzie Smith episode (Paraphrase: “I’m not here to judge, but: JUDGE JUDGE JUDGE). In fact he does this throughout, apparently convinced that just by saying “I’m not (BLAH),” that makes it true, despite of whatever he follows or precedes it with. Or maybe he knows that he’s obfuscating and just thinks that little of his audience.

But this is the way that he defends himself from criticism and indirectly attacks other players, managers, or media members, all while claiming to do the opposite. In a bizarre sequence, he even detachedly addresses his 2007 DUI and offers the lamest, least probing analysis of what happened: “. . . the police in Jupiter, Florida, found me stopped at a red light, napping. Evidently, I’d had too much wine and failed the breath test.”

Yes:  evidently.

You could have, you know, told us what YOU did, rather than explaining what happened to you. You were, you know, the one who decided to do that, for reasons that should have been clearer after reading that passage but certainly aren’t.

So yeah, disappointing not in that I expected much more, but just that he couldn’t be more open, honest and relaxed. Hey Tony, you’re retired, you can lighten up now!

Or maybe, despite all his brilliant analysis of baseball, Tony is just incapable of self-analysis. Maybe that cold exterior, that aloofness, is just his way of not having to deal with his own issues. An interesting idea, totally unconfirmable, but probably the most compelling part of this book. For a book about how La Russa REALLY thinks, Three Nights in August is much better (see my review).


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