On September 1, 2011--one month before post-season play began--the baseball websites and algorithms gave La Russa's Cardinals a 2.6 chance of winning the division and a 1.7 chance of winning the wild card for a combined 4.3 chance of even playing post-season.
Baseball fans everywhere know what happened. La Russa tells us he ignored the sites as he "was more concerned with the basics of maintaining our hard-earned self-respect and respect from others...."
From most, this could sound like just one of many cliches. With superb writing from Hall of Fame sportswriter Rick Hummel, nothing in this wonderful book sounds trite. To the contrary, the stories are incredibly informative and inspiring--and timeless in nature.
La Russa opens with the end of a disappointing 2010. He almost retired. When player-leaders came up to him and said things had gotten too loose in clubhouse, La Russa felt he had lost his ability to instill constant "effort and execution"--the "Cardinal way." He had won World Series in both leagues and already was a certain Hall of Famer. But always, he was a fierce competitor. he couldn't depart after a season like 2010. He would leave after one more best shot.
He decides early on that it will be his final season and tells only his family and the owners. He even holds off telling his closest confidant, Dave Duncan, long-time chief aide, as he worries about Mrs. Duncan's illness.
His secret compartmentalized, from spring training through perhaps the most thrilling World Series ever, La Russa leads and motivates. Thanks to fresh writing, good memory (it helps that La Russa is so bright!) and insightful dialogue, the book reads smooth as silk. Throughout, the writers flash back to La Russa's trials and tribulations as a player and young manager. Experience truly matters. So does a thorough understanding of human nature; what motivates people.
One doesn't have to be a Cardinals or La Russa fan to enjoy this book immensely. The values, skills, acquired wisdom, travails and triumphs, transcend baseball and offer many life lessons. It doesn't pretend to be a great book on pure skills and training (see George Will's terrific "Men At Work"); it's not a prize-winning writer's enchanting take on a snapshot of great baseball (see David Halberstam's "Summer of '49" and "October 1964"); not as satisfying microscopically as Buzz Bissinger's "Three Nights in August" (highly recommend one read the latter for more on La Russa and "the Cardinal way"); or, as revelatory (for the times) as "Ball Four."
Instead, La Russa and Hummel show us an extraordinary life in baseball. On its own merits, this book deserves a spot among those other greats noted above.
...another big plus, at least in the hard-cover: lots of good color photos