- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

ST. LOUIS. — Cardinals manager Tony La Russa’s life could have been a lot different if he took another fork in the road that was presented to him 11 years ago — a route to Baltimore.

In October 1995, Orioles owner Peter Angelos had a meeting with La Russa, who was granted permission by the Oakland Athletics to consider other job offers, to discuss managing the Orioles.

Instead, he took a job managing the Cardinals, and of course, after nine out of 11 winning seasons, seven National League Central Division titles, two NL pennants and now, after last night’s 4-2 Cardinals win over the Detroit Tigers to clinch the 2006 World Series championship — the 10th in franchise history — at Busch Stadium, La Russa feels pretty good about the decision he made.

“I was in the American League, and I wanted to stay in the American League,” La Russa said. “As I said before, Sparky [Anderson] told me, ‘Before you leave, you’ve got to manage in the National League. You’ll enjoy it.’ I did everything else Sparky said, so I assumed I was going to do that.”

Now La Russa, who won a World Series as manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1989, takes his place alongside Anderson as one of just two managers in the history of the game to win World Series titles in both leagues — something he might not have achieved had he not listened to Anderson, and he might not have, if Angelos had not fumbled his attempt to hire La Russa.

The Orioles owner had his eye on La Russa for some time, and, in 1994, had even made attempts to try to talk to the Athletics manager a year before without permission, which angered Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson to the point that he threatened to refuse to allow the game where Cal Ripken was originally scheduled to break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record to be moved from Oakland to Baltimore.

“I’m going to watch that game from our box in Oakland,” Alderson said. “We may have a seat for Angelos somewhere in the ballpark.”

It turned out to be a moot point, when the 1995 season didn’t begin after the strike was settled until the end of April, resulting in a 144-game schedule that put the record-breaking game in Baltimore on Sept. 6.

Finally, though, just days after the 1995 season ended, Angelos got the official OK to talk to La Russa, and the two men met for an interview.

This was what Angelos told the San Francisco Chronicle about La Russa and the Orioles: “We have a good franchise, tremendous fan support, and the best ballpark in baseball. If Tony La Russa became a part of that, it would seem we would have a manager of similar quality. He obviously has first-class leadership abilities. He’s clearly a student of the game. He has mastered the game. As I understand it, he’s an individual with complete integrity, and in many ways, a model manager. The ideal baseball manager.”

So, of course, La Russa wasn’t hired. At the time, it was reported that the Orioles balked at La Russa’s salary demands of $1.5 million a year, plus an additional $250,000 to bring pitching coach Dave Duncan with him, and also did not want to give La Russa the control he was seeking in player personnel decisions.

But La Russa revealed for the first time yesterday at Busch Stadium his version of why he passed on the Orioles job.

“I was intrigued by the history [there], and I had a good relationship with Cal,” La Russa said. “But the day I met there. … I would never discuss a managerial job unless the job was vacant. And I thought it was, and when I found out that Phil Regan was still under contract, I got back home and said, ‘I better not be considering it.’ ‘

So Angelos, according to La Russa, interviewed him before he had even fired Phil Regan. I’m stunned. Aren’t you?

You might say the decision changed the course of baseball history, but only for the Cardinals and La Russa, who have a model franchise concerning the relationship between team and manager. You can’t say it would have changed the history of the Orioles, because Angelos hired Davey Johnson, who took the team to two straight American League Championship Series and then quit because of his sour relationship with Angelos. There is little doubt that La Russa, even if he won, would have had a similar outcome with Angelos. It is the one constant in the Orioles championship reign of dysfunction.

Ironically, La Russa was hired in St. Louis by their new ownership group, led by Bill DeWitt — a former Orioles owner. Yes, people forget that for a brief spell, De Witt was a partner of Angelos.

Both of them are long free of any association with Angelos now, and the distance has served them both well. Together, they brought a World Series championship to one of the greatest baseball cities in America, and fans there celebrated in the streets last night. More than one month ago in Baltimore, fans there marched in the streets in protest.

For La Russa, this is particularly sweet on many levels. He had lost two World Series with teams that were considered better than the victors — the 1988 and 1990 Oakland teams that lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds — and now has won with a team that might have been ranked eighth among the eight teams in baseball that started the postseason, a team that limped to the NL Central division title with an 83-79 record — the lowest winning percentage of any series champion in baseball history.

“You know, one of the neat things about this … is that you realize baseball repays the team that plays the best,” La Russa said. “Sometimes you have a better team kind of on paper, but if you play better you win.”

The Cardinals played better than the San Diego Padres in the division series, the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, and now the Detroit Tigers in five games in the World Series, and La Russa and his team got repaid for that. He also got repaid for making the right decision 11 years ago, and should take special joy in where he is today, considering where he could have been.

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