By IAN WILSON
Hall-of-Fame manager Tony La Russa’s return this season to the team that gave him his first coaching gig came as a surprise to baseball watchers, and his current performance with the White Sox has not been without its challenges.
La Russa – who made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut as a player with the Kansas City Athletics on May 10th, 1963 – was a mediocre middle infielder, but he turned himself into an accomplished and recognizable skipper.
In his decades of pulling the strings from the dugout, the three-time World Series champion picked up over 2,850 wins and was named Manager of the Year on four occasions.
The Florida native also made some memorable appearances in Edmonton when he was a part of the major league rosters who came to the provincial capital for exhibition games.
La Russa brought Carlton Fisk and the White Sox to Renfrew Park in 1981, marking the first time a MLB team played a game in Alberta. That Thursday, May 21st contest between Chicago and their new Triple-A affiliate drew a crowd of 4,256 fans, who paid $10 each for the privilege of witnessing big league talent.
La Russa’s strategy for that game was slightly more unorthodox than his usual approach in the American League. Fisk shifted from behind the plate to first base for his three innings of play and Jim Siwy was promoted from Single-A to serve as Chicago’s starting pitcher, so La Russa could keep his rotation regulars well rested for more meaningful games. Siwy, who joined the Edmonton Trappers the following season, pitched well. He surrendered just six hits over eight innings of work.
The calls to the bullpen were even more unusual, with the White Sox’s 46-year-old traveling secretary, Glen Rosenbaum, and pitching coach Ron Schueler pressed into action to protect a lead in the ninth inning.
In the end, home runs from backup catcher Jim Essian and outfielder Chet Lemon powered the White Sox to a 4-3 victory over the hometown Pacific Coast League club. Lemon finished the day with a homer, a triple and two runs scored.
The 105-minute exhibition match ended on a spectacular play by centre fielder Rusty Kuntz. Trapper first baseman Gary Holle was trying to stretch a single into a double, but Kuntz fired a bullet to second base to register the final out.
“You won’t see a better throw than that to end the game,” remarked La Russa in the Edmonton Journal.
An even bigger road show made its way to Edmonton in 1995.
This time, the skipper had an even more impressive lineup of star players with him for the annual exhibition tilt between MLB regulars and minor-league dream chasers, including first baseman Mark McGwire and outfielder Rickey Henderson.
McGwire, who was coming off the disabled list, took batting practice at Telus Field on July 31st and gave on-lookers a show before the game even got going.
“Everybody wants to see that,” Trapper outfielder Scott Bryant told Journal columnist Cam Cole of the BP display.
“He’s just … unnatural strong. It’s sick. There’s nobody that has that kind of pop. That’s what we were talking about. A swing so short and quick and he gets so much power out of it – that one round, he got six hacks and took six balls out of the yard.”
Trapper catcher Mike Maksudian – who had put in MLB time with the Blue Jays, Twins and Cubs – was also impressed by Big Mac’s bat.
“I’ve seen guys hit it that far, but not consistently that far,” noted Maksudian.
“He was bringing down rain with those shots, one after another after another. You can watch guys take BP and get hot for a few swings, but it seemed like every swing he took for a while there it went 30 feet over the wall. Phenomenal shots.”
McGwire acknowledged that he could hear gasps from the crowd while he took his hacks, but he downplayed the performance.
“The objective in BP isn’t to hit homers, it’s to drive the ball, and if it happens to leave the park, that’s cool. But I’ve never considered myself the show and I never will. This is a team sport,” said McGwire, who ended up smashing 39 long balls in 104 games in 1995.
BIG MAC ATTACK
When the game got underway, the “Bash Brother” played three innings at first base before switching to a designated hitter role (which is not normally a legal substitution, but it was an exhibition game and McGwire needed the at bats).
In the fifth inning Single-A callup Gary Haught hit McGwire with a pitch, but the 6-foot-5 slugger broke with convention again and refused to go to first base.
“I just had to get my turns at bat. I wanted another try at it,” the Californian told the Journal. “The pitch barely grazed me. You’re facing a young kid like that, he’s probably a little bit nervous.”
Sadly, Haught walked McGwire on the next pitch, prompting heckles from some of the 9,200 fans in attendance. The crowd got what it came for in the seventh inning, however, when McGwire hit a 3-1 offering from Haught over the left-field wall. The blast didn’t have the same oomph as his BP bombs did, but it was a ticket around the bases, nonetheless.
More importantly, the game was fun for both the players and those who paid to see it. A grinning McGwire was autographing programs between innings and waving to the fans. Retired third baseman Carney Lansford, a bench coach for the Athletics who would later return to Edmonton to manage the Trappers in 1999, suited up and took a spot in the infield. He ended up scoring a run and driving in another.
“The only time a game like this is a pain in the butt is when you come into a city where it doesn’t seem like the people are that excited to see you, and only half the park is sold,” La Russa told Cole.
“But with a crowd like that, enthusiastic, the guys see it’s a packed house, and they want to put on a good show.”
McGwire reflected on the overall state of the game and saw a sport that was wounded.
“The game is damaged,” said the 10th overall pick from the 1984 MLB draft. “I don’t think the fans will come back until we get a lengthy (collective bargaining agreement). It’s not fun to play in empty stadiums. Then again, I don’t blame the fans. We’re going to have to do some P.R., no question about it.”
Added McGwire: “We have a long way to go to get this game back on its feet again.”
He would play a key role in baseball’s resurgence with his home-run record chasing 1998 season that saw him and Sammy Sosa go head-to-head in pursuit of one of sports most revered standards. But that same wild campaign came under fire when the steroid era was revealed and McGwire was an admitted user of performance-enhancing drugs.
Those ups and downs were a long ways from this beautiful summer day in Edmonton.
The final inning of the 9-7 Oakland victory over Edmonton included a touch of entertainment that MLB fans were never treated to.
La Russa, who was 50 years old at the time, decided to trade in his cap for a batting helmet, pick out an aluminum bat, and head towards home plate. As he waited in the on-deck circle, McGwire told his skipper he’d buy him a new Jaguar luxury car if he could jack a pitch out of the ballpark.
“I figured I was pretty safe,” McGwire said after the game.
In one of the more bold cases of sign stealing the game has ever seen, La Russa told Trapper catcher Garrett Beard to deliver a message to his pitcher, Ian Epstein.
“I asked the catcher to tell the pitcher that if he ever desired to play for me in this organization, he’d throw me something right down the middle with nothing on it,” a smiling La Russa confessed to the Journal.
Epstein was happy to help La Russa out and delivered some pitches the batter could make contact with. The manager fouled one of them off before popping out to Edmonton first baseman Jim Bowie.
“I was there to try and win a car,” La Russa later admitted. “Ian co-operated. The pitch was right there. I just took my usual ugly swing at it and popped it up.”
THE FINAL OUT
The game also provided a fitting send-off for Albertan Bruce Kirby, who worked his last contest as an alternate umpire for the Trappers that day.
“I was nervous … I never expected I’d get a chance to do this,” said Kirby, who got his start in umpiring by calling amateur games in St. Albert in the 1980s.
“This is a great way to go out.”
Even La Russa was impressed with his work.
“I thought he did a real good job,” said La Russa, who filled out and signed an official lineup card for Kirby as a memento.
“All the calls he made were right. It was a treat to be a part of his last game.”
That was a two-way street. Baseball fans in Edmonton received a few treats from La Russa over the years.