It was former Cardinals player Eduardo Perez, calling the skipper to tell him about a player that Perez was managing in the Puerto Rican winter league. Perez had taken a shine to Joe Thurston, and he wanted to share his enthusiasm with the St. Louis manager.
"It was my first year [managing]," said Perez. "I wanted to emulate a lot that I learned from Tony. I think it's the best way, the best person to follow, a guy like Tony. And I had it set up right there in my hands with Joe Thurston, a guy that can play second, short, third. He played the outfield for me. He just plays them all, and he played them all above average. That meant a lot. And he also knew how to handle the bat. And he can hit lefties. So right there, I started thinking, 'If he's working this way for me, he could definitely work real well also for Tony.'"
La Russa listened, and he took Perez's words to heart. You'll rarely hear La Russa speak ill of an ex-teammate, but Perez is one of those guys for whom he reserves special accolades. A smart, likable and thoughtful man, Perez is popular just about everywhere he goes.
"There's not a lot of guys you meet like Eduardo," La Russa said. "Eduardo has got a real good feel for watching players and evaluating them. I think he's a natural for a field manager, which he did in Puerto Rico. Walt [Jocketty, former Cards general manager] used to talk to him all the time when he retired, come work in our office. He's just a natural. It [Perez's recommendation] counts a lot."
Perez was so eager to prove that Thurston could hack it, he devised a special plan. Knowing that third-base coach Jose Oquendo is one of La Russa's most trusted lieutenants, Perez arranged to show Thurston off in front of Oquendo.
"I put him out to play shortstop against Jose's team, because if you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere," Perez said. "That's exactly what I did. Against Carolina [Oquendo's team], I played him at short. I don't know if Jose knew this or not, but I just wanted him to see him play at short. And he made some nice plays over there. That really seconded the notion, and it paid off."
So Thurston got a chance. He enjoyed a fine spring, living up to Perez's billing not only as a player but as a teammate. And he made the Opening Day roster, setting him up for his longest tenure in the big leagues yet.
Thurston still appreciates the boost.
"I definitely think that helped, with someone just knowing what to look for," Thurston said. "I was kind of hidden, but at the same time, not too much, because at least they knew a little bit. OK, this guy works hard, plays hard."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.