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The darker side of La Russa's legacy
There’s a sad and uncomfortable truth hidden beneath the mounds of adulation heaped upon recently retired St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
Mark McGwire, right, has loomed over the steroid-tainted portions of La Russa's career.Jeff Roberson
Like a parent who turns a blind eye as a child spins out of control, La Russa bears as much responsibility as just about anyone for the Steroid Era. And we all need to consider the biggest stain in baseball history to be an equally dark stain on La Russa’s storied career.
Two of the seminal moments in baseball’s sordid steroid history happened under La Russa’s tutelage. The first was the “Bash Brothers” Oakland A’s teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which Jose Canseco later infamously detailed in his steroid tell-all book, “Juiced.” That was the Steroid Era in its infancy, a team that earned La Russa his first World Series victory but also started baseball on the slippery slope toward a drug-centric culture.
La Russa’s second seminal steroid moment came in 1998, when baseball was repairing its image after the 1994 strike caused the cancellation of the playoffs. And what better way to get fans back than with a home run race for the ages, when the bulked-up Mark McGwire — again playing for La Russa, this time in St. Louis — and the bulked-up Sammy Sosa each broke Roger Maris’ sacred record in the same season? This was the Steroid Era at its zenith, when we were all so caught up in the excitement that we neglected to notice that there was no possible way it was real.
Is La Russa solely to blame? Of course not. Every team had steroid users. Nobody spoke up. These were the sins of an entire game. La Russa, like all of us, willfully ignored what was going on in front of him, blinded by the excitement of winning and of home runs. Why should one man have spoken up when everyone in and around the game was reveling in the drug-fueled home run orgy?
In fact, we all bear responsibility here: The players who juiced up to pad their numbers and get a fat new contract. The front-office executives who didn’t seem to care, as long as the juiced-up players produced. The journalists who didn’t aggressively chase obvious questions surrounding baseball’s home run explosion and players’ expanding biceps. Even fans, who suspended disbelief because, let’s face it, we dig the long ball.
“It was an emerging problem that I don't think any of us fully comprehended,” Sandy Alderson, who was general manager of the A’s during those years and is currently the GM of the New York Mets, recently told the New York Post. “At one point, we considered drug testing. We bought the kits. We identified a lab. But ultimately, because we knew it would probably be illegal under state law, and certainly a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, we backed off.”
And it should be noted that La Russa has repeatedly denied knowledge of steroid use in his clubhouse. Upon the publication of Canseco’s book, La Russa called it “a fabrication” and said McGwire’s strength came from hard work, not steroids. (McGwire later copped to the steroid charge but said La Russa never knew he was juicing.) But to think this was going on under La Russa’s gaze without the manager suspecting something was up doesn’t seem feasible. He is famously one of the most detail-oriented managers in baseball, one reason he’s so great. To think that La Russa wouldn’t question how his players had grown into cartoonish figures is absurd. And to think the control freak wouldn’t have at least an inkling about clubhouse activities like Canseco and McGwire injecting each other with steroids in bathroom stalls — a claim Canseco has made but McGwire has denied — just doesn’t pass the smell test.
“Everyone's making money,” McGwire’s brother, Jay McGwire told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. “You keep it hush-hush. They're not going to confront it. Tony La Russa says he never knew. I have a hard time believing it."
Nothing about the Steroid Era passed the smell test, come to think of it. It didn’t take a strict drug-testing policy for Major League Baseball to recognize it had a problem on its hands. It only took looking at all these players’ statistics ballooning in old age, something that had rarely happened in baseball history. It only took a glance at the ballplayers who’d turned into linebackers. It only took common sense.
And it only took a few smart baseball people with powerful voices — people like La Russa — to look at the game with eyes wide open, use that common sense, and speak up. La Russa did none of the above. He was present in the beginning, present at the height, and is now leaving during what we can only hope is the end. Yet he never took responsibility for his sins, whether they were sins of omission or sins of commission. That is where La Russa is most culpable.
Say what you will about Canseco, that he’s a self-serving buffoon who is obsessed with his own celebrity and out to make a quick buck. But Canseco was also a one-man reconciliation commission whose allegations, more than anyone else, pulled back the curtain on baseball’s secret. That’s more than we can say for La Russa. La Russa has said Major League Baseball “could have been more hard-nosed” about steroid testing, but any efforts “would have been rebuffed” by the players’ union. This sounds less like a heartfelt admission of at least some culpability and more like a lawyerly dodge to divert the blame elsewhere.
Baseball is a game like no other, where stories of games and of seasons and of careers can be told through numbers. The Steroid Era threw those historical tools out of whack. How can we compare Brady Anderson’s 50-home run season in 1996 to Willie Mays’ 52-home run season in 1965? Does that mean Brady Anderson was, for one season, nearly as good as the Say Hey Kid?
Again, La Russa is not alone. He’s just the best, and therefore under more of a microscope. And like baseball fans crucified McGwire and Barry Bonds but ignored steroid users like Jason Grimsley and Jack Cust, so too must we hold La Russa’s managerial legacy to a higher standard.
And that legacy is impressive, one of the finest in baseball history. He managed for 33 years, the last 16 in St. Louis. He won the third-most games of any manager in baseball history. He won three World Series. And he retired the way we all want to: The day after a downtown St. Louis victory parade celebrating his amazing, never-say-die 2011 Cardinals.
Yet like the players who so obviously juiced up their numbers but never copped to cheating, La Russa’s numbers are tainted as well. In a conference call with reporters last year, La Russa admitted his legacy will be muddled by what he called a “confusing era.” Instead of a career defined by the many things he did right — and the list is too long to count —his career is besmirched by the era in which he managed. The sport’s win-at-all-costs ambition collided with the temptation to cheat. La Russa, knowingly or not, was sucked into that vortex. The rest of baseball followed.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of spending time with Chicago Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg. We talked about Sandberg’s Hall of Fame speech, where he heroically called out the Steroid Era and spoke of playing the game the right way, the way it’s supposed to be played. I asked him what will happen when he has to vote on whether a steroid-tainted player like Barry Bonds should enter the Hall of Fame.
Sandberg had a novel idea. Dirty numbers don’t belong in Cooperstown, he said, but it would be silly to ignore that era in baseball history. He suggested the Hall of Fame build a separate wing for the Steroid Era, treat that time openly and honestly, and honor players who played during that tainted era with their own, asterisked exhibit.
I second Ryno’s motion. And I propose that Tony La Russa, the man whose teams first ushered in that dark time in baseball history and then brought it to its apex, should be the Steroid Wing’s inaugural inductee.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.