If O's have eye on La Russa, they may have to alter sights

August 11, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- If not Tony La Russa, then who?

That's a question the Orioles might need to start asking, assuming they plan to fire Ray Miller as manager after this season.

La Russa, 54, hasn't managed in a World Series since 1990, but he has won the most games of any active manager, and reportedly is owner Peter Angelos' first choice to replace Miller.

Like Davey Johnson, he possesses the confidence and experience necessary to succeed in Baltimore. But at this point, his preference is to stay with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"He's coming back," Mark McGwire said last night, flashing a knowing smile.

La Russa won't go that far -- he has yet to accept the Cardinals' offer of a contract extension. But he made it clear Monday that he wanted to remain in St. Louis and continue managing in the National League.

"There's absolutely nothing to it," La Russa said of his supposed interest in the Orioles. "I would never, ever, acknowledge a pursuit with somebody in the position. And if the position was vacant, there's nothing to it.

"I'm in St. Louis. I don't want to be corny about it, but it's an honor and privilege to manage this club. It's a great situation for a manager, player or coach. You take Baltimore and put it in the National League, and that's how St. Louis is.

"My entire motivation is for us to play well enough in the last 50 games that the majority of people think I'm the right guy to manage that club in 2000."

Apparently, not everyone in St. Louis does, and it bothers La Russa.

The Cardinals are 213-226 since winning the NL Central title in 1996, La Russa's first season. And everywhere the manager turns, he confronts ghosts of the franchise's three World Series teams in the 1980s.

In June, La Russa spoke of "very powerful enemies" in St. Louis, apparently referring to former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, shortstop Ozzie Smith and possibly outfielder Andy Van Slyke, all of whom have been critical of his work in various forums.

Cardinals fans, too, are growing restless, believing that La Russa suffers in any comparison with Herzog, that his team plays too much of an American League style, that he is too much the aloof Californian, and not enough a down-home Midwesterner.

"I'm not sure how good a situation it is," La Russa said in June.

Of course, the same could be said of Baltimore, for different reasons.

La Russa would be embraced by Orioles fans who recall his three straight AL titles with Oakland. But he would inherit unique challenges as Angelos' fifth manager in seven seasons -- a logjam of veterans under long-term contracts, a slowly improving farm system and a committed but unpredictable owner.

"I look at their people, they've got a lot of good people, a lot of good pros," La Russa said of the Orioles. "Sometimes, expectations are a cross to bear. If you've got big expectations, it makes it really difficult to compete. The only way you can be successful, you've got to be really good.

"You don't sneak up on anybody. If you stumble and fumble around a little bit, it's worse than if another club gets off to a slow start. I think they've been overloaded with expectations. When you get off to a slow start, that makes it worse. But when you spend that kind of money, the expectations are there."

The Orioles' $84 million payroll is the second-highest in the majors. The Cardinals are just under $50 million, but La Russa said he is satisfied with ownership's spending, and he is close with Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals' general manager.

Former Orioles employees would tell La Russa that he is fortunate to manage in such a cohesive environment. The influence of his "enemies" extends only to public opinion. The people who control his future all want him back.

What, then, is the problem?

La Russa follows his own code, and wants to prove himself worthy of an extension. He can be as sensitive as he is competitive. And, curious as it might seem for a manager of his stature, he apparently wants to gauge public sentiment before making his decision.

"I was taught -- I don't care what your contract says -- that each year you're supposed to establish that you're the guy who should manage that club the next year," La Russa said. "You have the whole year to establish that with the people who pay attention and are fair. I've done that for 20 years. That's exactly what I'm doing now."

The criticism in St. Louis?

"Maybe Joe [Torre] in New York is an exception. Maybe there isn't anybody who snipes there," La Russa said. "I was just sick [missing eight games with a stomach ailment], so I was just in San Francisco for six days. Some people were sniping at [GM Brian] Sabean and Dusty Baker. I mean, geez. But that's part of managing in the big leagues. If that bothers you, you're doing the wrong thing.

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