Albert Pujols is up for the biggest contract in baseball history. The St. Louis Cardinals and their fans are getting antsier by the minute, petrified their franchise player will bolt at the end of the season. Twenty-nine other teams and their fans fantasize about penciling one of the 10 greatest hitters in the game’s history into their lineup. Pujols’ fate is the biggest story around right now. Nothing else is even close.
How could Tony La Russa not get involved?
Addressing the media yesterday, La Russa fumed that the Major League Baseball Players Association is trying to “beat up” his star player. That “is bullshit,” the 66-year-old manager ranted to ESPN’s Jayson Stark. “That’s not the way it should be.” He was just getting warmed up. The union does this with many high-profile players, La Russa charged, in an effort to raise the salary bar for other members. But with Pujols, it’s “not just arm-twisting. It’s dropping an anvil on your back through the roof of your house.”
When it comes to contract negotiations with his players, this is typical La Russa. He did it with Matt Holliday after the 2009 season, he’s doing it now with Pujols, and he’ll do it again with the next big star in a contract year.
Talk to those who know La Russa or write about him, and they’ll say this isn’t about the manager begrudging his players’ paydays. He likes to deflect attention away from those close to him, observers say. If Cardinals management and a player get locked in contentious negotiations, La Russa will find a third party to take the blame — the easier the scapegoat the better. When Holliday waited for the best deal, his agent Scott Boras got the blame. With Pujols, it’s the players union. In La Russa’s world, if Pujols doesn’t re-sign with the Cardinals, his bosses can’t be at fault, and neither can his player. Another party must be there to play the role of the villain. It’s a pragmatic approach, meant to foster a sense of loyalty from everyone around him.
When La Russa lashed out at the union, a reporter called him on it. Have you told Albert this, the reporter asked. La Russa said he had not. Aren’t you using the media to tell him, then? La Russa confirmed that he was.
That he can take this kind of stance, use the media as his microphone rather than talk to his player directly, and see no repercussions, is a testament to La Russa’s influence, his ability to sway public opinion…and maybe some mind-control powers.
If you were negotiating a contract, and a middle manager who stood between you and your bosses started yelling that someone else was controlling your thoughts, that you didn’t have free will to make your own decisions, and that you shouldn’t be so quick to ask for more money…wouldn’t you want to punch that guy in the face? Whether your negotiations were for $30,000, or $300 million, having someone take La Russa’s stance would seem disrespectful and spiteful, even if the middleman claimed to have your best intentions, and the company’s, in mind. And if there’s one thing La Russa can do, aside from manage a good game, it’s make others believe in his intentions.
When La Russa got into a running dispute with up-and-coming outfielder Colby Rasmus over playing time, you’d never fail to hear about Rasmus’ supposedly selfish demands, as well as those of his stage-dadish father.
When La Russa (and Pujols) struck up a friendship with Glenn Beck, then agreed to attend a Beck rally in Washington, DC, La Russa said he wasn’t aware of Beck’s politics or the messages delivered on the FOX NEWS star’s various shows. The Cardinals manager said he was completely shut out from the outside world during baseball season, so focused on the game that he was completely apolitical. Which is odd, because La Russa shouldn’t have to defend himself for attending a rally or befriending any commentator. But he did anyway, and most commentators (save for Cardinals die-hard Will Leitch and a few others) found his I-live-eat-sleep-and-breathe baseball stance charming, and a perfectly valid reason to accept his lack of awareness.
One could also argue that La Russa’s DUI arrest was quickly washed away, largely because he was lucky enough to not hit anyone after passing out behind the wheel. Then again, DUIs and resulting slaps on the wrist are an epidemic in pro sports, so La Russa’s hardly alone in getting off easy.
Tony La Russa has had many successes in his long career in baseball, building winning teams with the White Sox, A’s, and Cardinals. With the help of his right-hand man, pitching coach Dave Duncan, he’s redefined how modern bullpens are used — with Duncan also transforming scores of merely decent pitchers into good ones. La Russa will breeze into the Hall of Fame on the first vote, deservedly going down as one of the most accomplished managers the game has ever known.
But save some credit for his incredible gift of diplomacy. La Russa has had two fawning books written entirely, or partially in his honor. He knows what to say, he knows when to say it, and he knows how to come out smelling like roses. He is the greatest diplomat of his generation.
UPDATE: The players union denies it ever spoke to Pujols, his agent or anyone else in his camp, or pressured him in any way. This after La Russa said he had no specific evidence that such a conversation occurred.
Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.