ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa has never been the world's most likeable guy. He hasn't been the country's most likeable guy. Or a state. City. Neighborhood. Hell, he hasn't been the most likeable guy in his own house, and I don't know anything about his personal life -- maybe he lives alone. Wouldn't matter. He would still be second or third.
That's how I felt about him before the 2011 World Series. That's all I knew.
And now, everything I knew is gone. Because this Tony La Russa? This Tony La Russa at the 2011 World Series?
I like this Tony La Russa.
I mean, I really like him. It's not a matter of tolerating him, or toning down my dislike. Look, I don't like wine either. Tastes bad to me, always has, so I haven't had a sip in years. Liking Tony La Russa after all these years would be like taking a sip of Chardonnay and deciding to buy a case.
And it's not just me, either. Lots of baseball writers here at the World Series validated my suspicion of the Cardinals manager, because believe me, I wasn't going to write that -- Hey, Tony La Russa is likeable! -- without running it past people who know him a lot better than I do. So I ran it by writers from St. Louis and New York and California. And I ran it by CBSSports.com colleague Scott Miller, who told me this La Russa is different from previous versions of La Russa.
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"More relaxed," Miller told me, having no idea I would sink so low, journalistically, as to quote a CBSSports.com colleague in a column. "In the past he's had teams that were supposed to win, and you could feel that tension. But now, it's like he's playing with house money."
So it's not just me, which is a relief. I'm not going soft -- La Russa is. And thank God for that, because he used to be wound tighter than a billiard ball. Come to think of it, a billiard ball isn't wound at all. It's molded, rock-like, out of some super-hard plastic. And that's what La Russa's personality has been for years -- molded, rock-like, out of some super-hard plastic. Impenetrable. Not eco-friendly. Not friendly at all. But smart? As a material, plastic is genius.
And so was La Russa. It's not a cliché to say that, in years past, La Russa liked to be the smartest guy in the room. Not to say he tried to reinvent the batting order or anything, but ... wait, he did try to reinvent the batting order. He took to hitting his pitcher eighth, not ninth as had been done by managers forever, and he did that because, well, because. He had his reasons, and I'm sure they were brilliant. But it didn't catch on, and he doesn't appear to do it anymore.
Anyway, in those days La Russa's press conferences were lessons in smug. He would be asked a question, and his default answer mode was to lift an eyebrow and take a second to dig through his brain for the smartest response -- then deliver a lecture on whatever topic was at hand. I mean, every time that's what he did. And unless you were a star-struck schoolboy or maybe George Will, you saw it for what it was and just cringed. Smug is like a pair of skinny jeans, something that doesn't look good on anybody.
Here I've spent 500 words explaining why I didn't like La Russa, so let me apologize. Because he's not that guy. He's no longer smug, reinventing the lineup, raising an eyebrow and casting about for something smart to say.
He is, after all these years, a real guy. He's funny. Humble. Maybe he has always been that guy -- come to think of it, I'm sure he has -- but for whatever reason he's only now sharing that guy with the rest of us. Too bad he didn't do it years ago, but better late than never. Think of the comedy gold we would have missed recently when La Russa was asked to explain why he flip-flopped outfielders Lance Berkman and Allen Craig for Game 3 of the NL Division Series against Philadelphia.
"It's my tribute to Moneyball ..." La Russa said, citing the book-philosophy-movie. "What we do is we take the square footage between the right-field line and center field, and the square footage from left field to center field, divide that by pi and we multiply it by bulls---. And then we pick the dugout. The field that's closest to the dugout, and that's where Lance plays."
Gold. And that sort of thing has continued over the past two days in St. Louis. La Russa hasn't been that funny since then -- Chris Rock hasn't been that funny since then -- but he has been less molded, less plastic. More real. Likeable. Here. See for yourself:
La Russa, asked about his players who are making their World Series debut: "Well, the first one you're just -- I wouldn't say clueless. You have a little clue, but virtually clueless. It was like '83, first time in the playoffs [with the White Sox]. You're just hoping you don't pass out during the game."
La Russa on the 1988 World Series, won by the Dodgers against his A's: "I remember -- and that's a painful memory -- there's no doubt in my mind that Tommy [Lasorda] did a much better job at getting his club ready to play that World Series than I did with the A's. So it's a painful experience."
La Russa on his team's improving defense: "That's a good question to ask [but] it's a crappy question to answer because ... you know, we've had some defensive issues."
La Russa on his managerial friends, Tom Kelly and Jim Leyland: "We've talked for years since the '80s, and we have a lot of the same opinions and philosophies. And the only reason that I have more wins is that the three organizations, ownership, front office, players, [Kelly and Leyland] went through some times where there were struggles. So it has everything to do with good fortune."
A humble La Russa is an enjoyable La Russa, and he has no reason to be humble right now. Baseball writers all over the place are calling him a genius for his usage of the bullpen and bench this postseason, when his Cardinals have reached the World Series -- and won Game 1 -- despite having the worst regular-season record of the eight teams who made the playoffs.
The old La Russa would have heard the talk about his genius, cocked an eyebrow and delivered a lecture. Today's La Russa? He said all this winning has nothing to do with him. It's the players.
"You make a move," La Russa said of managing. "If it works, hey, what a good move. If it doesn't work, 'What was he thinking?'"
Added La Russa, "I'm not affected by [the media praise]."
Yeah, well, I'm not affected by you, either. OK that's a lie. I like you! Can't believe I just wrote that ...