Legends say Tony made them better players
Manager's intensity, preparation lauded by game's greats
ST. LOUIS -- About a half-hour before taking the field as one of more than two dozen guests that Tony La Russa personally invited to attend Friday's ceremony, Dennis Eckersley shared a story that, to him, epitomized the man of the hour.
Then pitching for La Russa in Oakland, Eckersley arrived in a Baltimore hotel room in the middle of the night after having just flown in from Cleveland, where he had served up a home run. He was handed the key to his hotel room and upon entering, found a note.
As best he remembered it, it read: "Eck, you're the best."
The message had been delivered from La Russa, who, as Eckersely put it, "knew how crushed I was."
The gesture never was forgotten.
"Never will be," Eckersley added. "To me, that's managing."
Eckersley was one of several of La Russa's former players to attend Friday's ceremony, one in which the Cardinals retired his No. 10. Others from La Russa's illustrious past were at Busch Stadium, too, like Walt Jocketty, the general manager who brought La Russa to St. Louis; Roland Hemond, former GM of the White Sox; and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
There were players representing all three managerial stops La Russa made during a 33-year period, including Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Matt Morris, Andy Benes, Alan Benes, Brian Jordan, Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein. As the schedule would have it, Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher, now both on Atlanta's coaching staff, were also present for the festivities.
Both played under La Russa in Chicago.
Like Eckersley, most shared stories about how La Russa maximized the potential of his players, about his obsession with preparation and about his pure love for the game. Here is a sample of some of those shared memories:
Eckstein, former Cardinals infielder:
"Tony manages until the numbers say it's over. Even when the outside people thought it was over, Tony would never give in to that. It's a credit to him. That managing job last year will probably go down as one of the top ones in the history of the game.
"As everyone knows, Tony really thinks out the game and what he does for his players. He tries to put them in the best situation to be successful. He really looks into that, and I think that's where he is different from other managers. He manages to manage the game. He doesn't manage worrying about what questions he's going to be asked at the end of the game."
Edmonds, former Cardinals outfielder:
"He taught me how to play the game the right way and to be professional day in and day out. Everything that he believed in, he was consistent with. Everything he did was to try and win a game. He never tried to stop winning every night, and that's something you don't see in this game every night. It's impressive when you sit back and pay attention to it.
"He never stops thinking about the game. He never stops talking about the game. Sometimes, it's tiring to listen to, but he's a man of his word, and he has your back as a player. It's fun to play for him."
Joe Torre, former Major League manager:
"When you managed across the field from him, you hated him, because you knew he was always thinking of something to beat you, and you didn't know from which end he was going to come. Once the façade is dropped, you realize what a warm, fuzzy person he is, even though he probably doesn't want people to know that.
"I think as a manager, you really appreciate the discipline [his] team showed. I think that's the one thing that Tony has been consistent about. He's very meticulous in what he does. He is very methodical in how he does it. And the players respond. When you played for Tony, you know what your role is."
Morris, former Cardinals pitcher:
"I came from an intense environment. My dad was a marine, a Vietnam vet. I went to Seton Hall, which had a similar-type vibe. Coming here, I just thought it was normal. When I left is when it really clicked [that La Russa was different]. It was what I needed as a player. The great thing about Tony is that he personalized it to each player. He figured out how to motivate each player, what each needed. I liked his style from the beginning. Maybe I didn't know better."
Jordan, former Cardinals outfielder:
"Tony's one of those unique managers. His style of play, I learned to respect. I was teasing him earlier. I said, 'When I played for somebody else and then I came to play in St. Louis, you kept me on my toes, because I knew you were up to something.' Which is great. That's what makes him so unique. He's one of the greatest managers of all time. It was all about respect, man. It's an honor to be here for me.
"He made an average player really good because he put them in great situations. I learned to respect that. Look at some of the talent he's had and how far he's gone with that talent and you just scratch your head."
Red Schoendienst, former Cardinals manager:
"You see guys on the bench when they're managing. Some of them walk a little, and they're up and down. They're looking here, they're looking there. Some of them are a little more calm. Tony, no matter what he did, he was always in the game."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.