KCBS News Anchor Stan Bunger (who along with KCBS Sports Anchor Steve Bitker are the on-air duo known as KCBS Sports Fans) offers his unique sports analysis.   

(Originally published October 31, 2011)

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(KCBS) – The whole notion of “going out on top” sounds good, but it doesn’t happen often enough. Too many athletes, coaches, and managers stick around hoping for one more trip to the top of the hill–one that seldom comes.

That’s why it’s nice to see Tony La Russa say goodbye to the dugout, just days after claiming his third World Series title. La Russa has been there, done that. And could any season ever top the one La Russa and his Cardinals just finished? I doubt it.

Just about anyone who follows sports knows about the last three games of the World Series: the Game 5 “phone-gate” story, the epic Game 6, and the make-no-mistake-about-it Game 7 that gave La Russa his final ring. But there was a lot more to Tony La Russa’s last lap.

Don’t forget La Russa’s struggle with a case of shingles so severe it kept him away from the ballpark for a few days and in pain for many weeks. Don’t forget the key Cardinal injuries: starting pitcher Adam Wainwright missed the whole season, outfielder Matt Holliday missed a big chunk and The Great Pujols missed a couple of weeks. There was the whole “is this Albert’s last year in St. Louis?” free-agency deathwatch. And then there was that month of September.

While the baseball world focused (and maybe over-focused) on the Red Sox meltdown, the Cardinals faced an even bigger deficit, clawing past Atlanta the last night of the season to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.

And then the Cards knocked off the heavily-favored Phillies. And then the Cards knocked off the same Brewers team that had outpaced St. Louis in the NL Central during the regular season. And only then did La Russa get his final shot at the brass ring.

You can read all the stats about La Russa’s career and still not fully appreciate this man. I’ll cop to my own mistaken read on LaRussa. Back in the 1980’s, I’d occasionally be sent to cover an A’s game and find myself having to do the postgame interview thing. Mind you, I wasn’t a regular in the clubhouse, just one of those microphone-wielding itinerants who are eyed warily by athletes.

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I often found La Russa, well…challenging. Especially, but not exclusively, after a loss, he could be a tough nut. Not just grouchy, because that I could understand. No, it seemed that La Russa felt that every question was a challenge to his intelligence or maybe even his manhood. It seemed to me then like insecurity, and I can remember thinking that this poor guy needed to learn to relax.

What I didn’t know, because I never got close enough to La Russa to know, was that this man is a grinder, a guy who will outwork you or die trying. As his friend John Madden told us this morning, “‘A’ students don’t make the best managers and coaches.” The implication: La Russa was never a star on the field, so he set out to dominate the game as a manager.

I finally got a sense of the real Tony La Russa many years later in, of all places, a room beneath the stage at Oakland’s Paramount Theater. I’d wormed my way into a role in the annual Nutcracker ballet performance in which La Russa recruited jocks and “celebrities” to perform in the beloved holiday classic. For Tony, the annual fundraiser was a matter of passion: his daughter, Devon, was a dancer. Tony and his wife Elaine were serious supporters.

La Russa’s passion for ballet seemed to me an expression of love for his wife and daughters (his other girl, Bianca, would later become an Oakland Raiderette), his way of supporting them in the same way a baseball family supports the man of the house through those long seasons.

So I began to see La Russa in a new light. And the conversion was complete as we BS’d backstage during the break between rehearsal and performance. La Russa was relaxed, funny, and very excited about a project he was embarking upon with author Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights): Bissinger would observe a 3-game Cardinals series and use it as a leaping-off point for an exploration of the inside world of the sport, with La Russa as the tour guide.

That’s when I gained a full appreciation of Tony La Russa. He was, by then, a man in full. His career path was set, he was engaged in altruistic activities like the ballet and his Animal Rescue Foundation, and now, this book would help establish La Russa’s legacy as a Baseball Mind. The book Three Nights in August ended up being a cut above the average ghost-written sports bio.

Madden says La Russa could have been successful coaching any sport because he cared about the arts of coaching and leadership. I think he’s right. When you mixed La Russa’s passion for baseball, his will to win, his willingness to buck the norm (who else was willing to bat his pitcher in the 8-hole?), and his relentless curiosity with what turns out to be a very wide stripe of good old humanity, you wind up with Tony La Russa.

I’m glad I was wrong about him all those years ago.

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