Despite its moot status, baseball calls Tony LaRussa

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago White Sox Manager Tony LaRussa is one baseball man who doesn't have to worry about how to keep busy during the stike. If time ever hangs heavy, he can always put on his other hat as practicing attorney -- the game's first manager/lawyer in more than 60 years.

LaRussa's story is one that would have done Horatio Alger proud. As do many youngsters, the Tampa, fla., native began his professional baseball career straight out of high school when he was drafted bythe Kansas City Athletics in 1962. He bounced around the minors for 16 years, a utility infielder with enough talent and determination to earn six stops in the majors totaling 132 games. But unlike most if his colleagues, LaRussa realized early that there was more to life than baseball, and he did something about it.

During the off-seasons he attended the University of South Florida in Tampa and in seven years earned an undergraduate degree in industrial management. But he didn't stop there; an inveterate problem solver and avid reader, LaRussa soon decided to go on to law school. Again attending classes during the off-season, he managed to fit in two quarters of study per year, and in five years had his degree -- with honors -- from Florida State University Law School.

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Eighteen months later he passed the bar exam, and in 1980 began practicing commercial and real estate law with the firm of Conley and Dooley in Sarasota, Fla. (Not coincidentally, the White Sox hold spring training in Sarasota and many Chicagoans spend part of the winter there.)

According to Roger Conley, a partner in the firm, the personable and articulate LaRussa "did far better than we would ever expect a first-year lawyer to do." The key, Conley said, was the skills LaRussa has already mastered in directing baseball players. "He's a proven leader and can work with people," Conley explained. "He didn't have to learn how to listen. He knew how to do it."

LaRussa began listening and watching years ago, when he was a part-time player spending his springs and summers in dugouts in cities across the country. "In the back of my mind, when I played I always thought along with the manager," he recalled. "I always thought it would be nice to be the guy calling the shots."

In 1977 he became a minor league player-coach. When he retired as a player following that season, he became a manager, beginning a meteoric rise that saw him managing the lowly White Sox by mid-1979, his age of 34 making him the youngest skipper in the majors at that time.

LaRussa is the third manager in history to double as an attorney. The others , Hughie Jennings and Monte Ward (who helped found the first players' association), are in the Hall of Fame.

LaRussa tries to play down any advantages he might have over his rivals by virtue of his legal training. He admits, however, to occasionally trying to lead an umpire as he would a hostile witness when arguing a point out on the field. Not that it does much good at changing a call -- "Nothing works with umpires," LaRussa lamented.

He also concedes that, thanks to law school, he is particularly aware of the value of exhaustive study of statistics, scouting reports, and the like in preparing to face each opponent. And LaRussa is a stickler for organization, essential to any effective litigation, although he claims that's simply an outgrowth of his personality.

Whatever their origin, the skills LaRussa brings to managing enabled him to smoothly merge a few veterans like Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, and Ron LeFlore with an otherwise extremely youthful cast to make the White Sox one of the major surprises of this abbreviated season. The team got off to a fast start and was in close contention for first place in the American League West when the strike that is now in its seventh week began on June 12.

In a profession nearly devoid of job security, LaRussa is already the senior manager in the seven-club West Division in terms of service with his team. But job security doesn't particularly worry him. His legal practice takes care of that. Now it's restricted mostly to the off-seasons; eventually he expects to practice full-time, engaging in some courtroom commercial cases as well as perhaps acting as a player- agent.

All of that remains secondary, though, to his first love, managing a major league baseball team. As long as he can do that, the law will have to wait. "The game turns me on," LaRussa said. "That to me is the thing -- the fun of doing it."

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