La Russa has three World Series rings to show for his 33 seasons of managing the White Sox, A's and Cardinals. When asked which ones he was wearing on Tuesday, he dangled 10 fingers, three of them glittering with gold and diamonds, and said, "All of them."
Plenty of guts, plenty of glory, and this weekend, La Russa will add to the treasure trove with a Hall of Fame ring.
La Russa will be inducted today on the stage behind the Clark Sports Center alongside Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, three of the greatest managers of all-time, all elected late last year by the Expansion Era Committee. They'll be joined by 300-game winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas to form one of the most-heralded Hall of Fame classes ever.
The D-backs' chief baseball officer now, La Russa is third all-time with 2,728 wins behind Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763). Cox is fourth at 2,504 and Torre fifth at 2,326. Torre's four World Series victories with the Yankees, though, equals the number of Cox and La Russa combined.
La Russa relentlessly chased the dream. But when he retired after his Cardinals defeated the Rangers in a very tough 2011 seven-game World Series, he decided to forsake the chase of McGraw, only 35 wins ahead of him. La Russa had just passed Cox into second place behind Torre for the most postseason wins. During that last season, La Russa had suffered through a serious and painful bout with shingles, and he was comfortable with what he had accomplished.
Along the way, La Russa developed a reputation as a cerebral, no-nonsense competitor, whose answer prior to a night game to the simple question, "How are you?" always garnered this answer: "Ask me at 10 o'clock." Always.
"There's no secret that the guy hated to lose," said Dave McKay, a former big league infielder who coached for La Russa in St. Louis and is now the D-backs' first-base coach under manager Kirk Gibson. "He'd learn from it, but he couldn't stand it."
La Russa never forgets, either. He was the A's manager, of course, in 1988 when they lost in five games to the Dodgers in that World Series. In Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, Oakland was leading, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth with future Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley on the mound and a runner on base. Gibson, benched by a knee injury, hobbled up to the plate as a pinch-hitter and blasted one of the most famous game-winning homers in World Series history.
If you're wondering, despite the passage of time, those ill-feelings haven't died.
"Every time I see him, I have to overcome that memory," La Russa said, who has the ultimate power now over Gibson and his 43-57 team. "And a tribute to him still being here today is that he had done a good enough job, because it would give me such great joy to give him that pink slip. They play that dang clip all the time. That was a magical moment, and the only way you accept it or tolerate it is that this was the World Series. Eck and Gibby were great competitors, and Gibby won. So, reluctantly, you tip your cap.
"If some yahoo had done it, it would hurt so much more. I dislike him, but I respect him."
La Russa knows how tough it is to be a high-level player. He was a marginal big leaguer with a .199 batting average in 132 games during parts of six seasons. La Russa earned a law degree because he didn't think he'd have a future in baseball, studying for the Florida bar exam while managing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, circa 1978.
"I was studying by the pool," he recalled. "That wasn't very good."
La Russa still passed the bar, but he never practiced, choosing a path of managing in the Minor Leagues instead. He didn't know whether he'd survive that first year, so he joined a two-man firm in Sarasota,, Fla., and began preparing for his first case.
"This is true: They gave me a lady who was trying to get competency restored," La Russa said. "So I did the work and her hearing was set for Spring Training. The way [White Sox owner Jerry] Reinsdorf enjoys telling the story is that I was in Spring Training and I forgot to appear for my client. The truth is, I had told the two guys in the firm that I was busy and they had it covered. So if you take the short answer, I did not appear. But he likes to say I forgot to appear. That day, I didn't think about her. I did forget that she was having it, but it was covered."
And that was the end of La Russa's budding law career.
Ultimately, La Russa managed eight years for the White Sox before Reinsdorf dismissed him midway through the 1986 season, calling it one of his biggest mistakes. It was only a matter of weeks before he was hired by Oakland. There La Russa remained through the era of the Bash Brothers, three American League pennants and a sweep of the Giants in the earthquake-torn 1989 World Series, leaving for St. Louis on his own volition after the 1995 season.
With the Cardinals, La Russa won three National League pennants and two World Series, the first in 2006 in five games over the Tigers, when the Cards won 83 regular-season games and nobody expected it.
On La Russa's resume, there are all the wins, 2,365 losses and the specter of the Gibson homer. No guts, no glory. Words to live by, and an apt inscription for his Hall of Fame plaque.