Small talk with Tony La Russa: A sports fan calls up the 2014 commencement speaker

| Staff Reporter

Chris Lee | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | MCT

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa smiles in the dugout during eighth-inning action against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals defeated the Brewers during Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wis., on Monday, Oct. 10, 2011.

The last time I was intimidated by somebody I was interviewing, I was a wee freshman walking into the office of Larry Kindbom, the head coach of the Washington University football team; it was my first ever interview for Student Life. But as I sat in my office, about to make the call that would be my last interview as editor-in-chief of StudLife, I was also sweating.

I was able to speak with 2014’s commencement speaker Tony La Russa as he drove to Coliseum for the Oakland Athletics’ season opener against the Cleveland Indians on March 31.

Think about it: this is a man who has won three World Series titles as a manager, played professional baseball for 16 years and will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July. I was so nervous that I said his name wrong when he answered the phone. Tie in the fact that I was coughing every 30 seconds and my voice was high-pitched enough to be confused with that of a teenage girl, and this phone call already seemed to be devolving into a disaster.

I’m sure La Russa could tell that I was a little anxious, which is probably why he asked me about what I wanted to hear in his speech to the seniors and about how long it should be.

“Somebody said 15 minutes, somebody said 20, somebody said 25, but I think 25 is too long,” La Russa said. I threw in my opinion and advocated for about 15 minutes, maybe more.

But as far as his speech’s content, La Russa didn’t want to talk about specifics.

“I’m going to try and put myself in their place and give some messages that I think would be helpful based on some experiences that taught me how to survive, thrive,” La Russa said, adding that he would be “going over just a realistic view of what they’ve accomplished to date and, more importantly, what’s ahead.”

So I requested a talk chock-full of baseball stories.

While La Russa is known for his animal rescue efforts, he is most associated with his work on the diamond. Baseball, too, is laced with metaphors of team building, perseverance over a 162-game season and hard work taking you far—perfect for seniors stepping out of the Wash. U. bubble and into the real world of adulthood.

“I have spent virtually every day of my professional life in baseball, but I have also learned about the value of an education,” La Russa, who holds a law degree from Florida State University, said. “I’ve been in baseball a long time, had some ups and downs, some wonderful moments and some heartaches…There’s stuff that happens in baseball that applies whatever line of work or profession you go into, so I’m going to try to draw those analogies together.”

La Russa has previously spoken at Wash. U. twice and has delivered the commencement address at Saint Louis University twice before. When I asked about the acceptance of his invitation to speak, he said it was an easy decision.

“I just spent 16 years in St. Louis with the Cardinals, and I have a past understanding of the value of education,” La Russa said. “I had a couple instances where I did have some type of contact with the University, and I’ve had a whole bunch of other instances where I’ve met alumni or students or members of the faculty, and it was always very positive. I was surprised to be invited, but I’m honored to be invited. It was an easy ‘yes.’”

La Russa will speak to the class of 2014 and their friends and family on May 16 in Brookings Quadrangle. If you cannot help but nod off due to his speech being long-winded or boring, you have me to blame.

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