WBC Interview: Tony La Russa

Dilip Vishwanat

Phoenix might be the baseball world hub this weekend, with not only spring training, but Pool D of the World Baseball Classic here too. That has brought many famous names to the city, and we've been able to talk to some. Today, it's Tony La Russa, owner of three World Series rings, and third all-time in major-league wins by a manager; he now works for the commissioner's office.

The WBC continues in Phoenix through March 10: tickets are available from worldbaseballclassic.com.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. First, can you tell us how Team USA was constructed?

The first important decision was to name Joe Torre the manager. Joes got such a well deserved reputation, with players, managers, front office personnel and owners that they knew whoever was picked and put on the team was going to be well cared for. And then there's the process - you look at availability, past injuries, and you have more than you can choose from! A lot of times you're going to be looking at pretty fine distinctions as to who should and shouldn't be on the team. Though I heard Mark Texiera had a hand problem today during practice...

"It's obvious that everybody is really into the competition. That's what excites fans, it's entertaining to watch guys really play hard and try to win."

I just saw that! So, what happens with an injury? I know coaches are very concerned with player injuries, do they have a "veto power" over who can and cannot play?

You try to do what's in their best interest and do the best you can. You have an obligation to support the United States team, and at the same time, you want to be fair to your franchise. A lot of guys were not made available because they might've had a potential issue with an injury or some type of question. But Texiera hurts his hand today, hitting off a tee, and that's going to happen some time with the Yankees, with his own team. So you try to be careful - the WBC has rules so you don't go over a certain number of pitches, and the managers are very careful about position players; if they're sore or fatigued, they'll get someone else out there. And with spring training starting earlier than usual, guys are in better shape to compete.It seems like this is similar to an All Star Game in terms of managing the talent.

You managed six of those yourself. Have you and Joe Torre talked about managing styles? How do you deal with such great talent who haven't played together long and who are very early in their season?

It is a team of all stars, but it's a tournament. At the All Star Game, the priority is more to get everybody to play than to win. Here, the priority is to represent your country and win. You won't see substitutions for the heck of it. All of the managers, they'll keep the right guys on the bench for later, pinch hitting or pinch running, and play the game right.

Do you think Team USA is at a disadvantage for the tournament being so early in MLB's season?

I don't think you can make any judges on the exhibition games, they just started playing together. The biggest thing with them is just getting to know each other and go out and play. The only guys that have a better chance are the guys out in the Pacific, where they've been practicing and playing together a lot longer.

Would WBC ever consider moving when the tournament is held, or do you think this is the best time?

There's a lot of consideration as to what's the best time. Anything else you come up with has problems, and doing it here at this time of the spring, there really isn't a better alternative.

Do you have any thoughts after seeing Pools A and B in the Pacific?>

I haven't been able to see much, a couple innings here, a couple innings there. But you know those teams; a couple of them are very well schooled, like the Japanese team, they play a lot of baseball and are fundamentally sound. Some of the teams are very new and the sport is just coming into the majority with them so it's harder. The thing I like the most is, no matter the inning I saw, it's obvious that everybody is really into the competition. That's what excites fans, it's entertaining to watch guys really play hard and try to win. And this is only the third time we've done it, so I think it'll get more and more popular.

What do you think of the makeup of Team USA? Is there a leader yet?

Unlike in basketball where you only have one or two leaders, in baseball you have a bunch of leaders. You look around and the way this team is put together, a majority of these guys are leaders on their teams, so I don't think leadership is going to be a problem. It won't be for the manager for sure or coaches either. They've got a lot of leaders on the team and that's the way it's supposed to be, it's the best way to be.

You're now a Special Assistant to Commissioner Bud Selig, how do you like that so far?

I appreciate the opportunity to stay close to the game. Right now we've got the WBC, and we only get involved if there are problems, and I hope there are no problems! Last year was my first year as an assistant, and I visited a bunch of different ballparks; whatever they asked me to do, I did it! This year we are doing some work to enhance instant replay for 2014 so we'll see how that goes.

Is replay a priority for this year? What about increased penalties with drug testing?

We're looking at a number of things. There's so much involved in our game, you want to have a lot of different actions going, but replay is something that's getting a priority and we're going to use some new technology and issue changes in 2014, but we're just in the beginning stages of figuring that out.

What do you miss most about being a manager?

I don't miss being in the dugout, but you develop relationships with teammates and people on your ball club, trainers, equipment guys, and it becomes an important part of your life, and it's not the same when you're not involved with a team.

Are you looking forward to the new inter-league format with 15 teams per league?

That is a different situation, so when you have differences it piques your interest to see how it plays out, and when it's over you say I like that or I didn't like this. Every series there'll be least one inter-league series so it's going to create some unique, some strange situations, but overall, balancing out the leagues and divisions makes a lot of sense so I'm really glad they did it.

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