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La Russa needed coaching, too

Just as when Mark McGwire spoke out, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is catching considerable heat for what he said and did not say.

    Wednesday, day three of the Mark McGwire re-entry program as architected by the crisis-management firm of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, apparently called for a shift in focus to the all-new Big Mac. The Cardinals hitting coach is shown swinging the bat and happily teaching his hitting students in California, relieved by his confession and ready to move forward.

    It was inevitable that change would not go completely smoothly. Jose Canseco, self-proclaimed whistle-blower of the steroid era, did his best to ensure that, trying to keep the focus on the past, instead of the future.

    While the primary subject of Canseco’s claims, widespread use of illegal drugs in baseball, was again reinforced, McGwire’s former Bash Brother teammate still has a long history of contradicting himself, embellishing details and later wishing he had handled himself differently.

    With that backdrop, the “he-said, she-said” debate over whether or not Canseco injected McGwire, where, when and how often is most incredulous. What we have here is a dispute between two admitted long-time drug users, both of whom have been proven to foster a long-term habit of avoiding or at least severely bending the truth.

    The phrase, “the first liar doesn’t stand a chance” was coined for situations precisely as this. If you hooked these two up to a polygraph, as Canseco has challenged, there would probably be an explosion the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Godzilla and Ghidorah destroyed Tokyo.

    Canseco’s counterattacks included a blast fired at his former manager and the current skipper of the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa. In an ESPN Radio appearance, Canseco vehemently disputed La Russa’s claim that the manager was unaware of McGwire’s use of steroids until this Monday.

    Said Canseco: “That’s a blatant lie. There are some things here that are so ridiculous, and so disrespectful for the public and the media to believe.”

    It is a sad state of affairs indeed when Canseco is left to define what is ridiculous and disrespectful.

    Putting the foolishness aside, I have been among the many troubled by the apparent rigidity of the manager’s remarks. Just as in McGwire’s damning unwillingness to acknowledge the performance-enhancing nature of performance-enhancing drugs, La Russa’s insistence that he was unaware of McGwire’s use all these years is a credibility-crusher.

    Tony La Russa (AP photo)As the result of his remarks, La Russa has been hammered in many corners of the press, almost as much as McGwire himself, it seems.

    La Russa’s assertion that he did not know of McGwire’s past use may have been akin to Bill Clinton swearing he didn’t inhale. A member of the legal profession like the former President, La Russa never said he did not have past suspicions. He only said he did not KNOW until Monday.

    Of course, he didn’t know. Without positive drug tests, no one knew for absolute certain until McGwire himself said so. Yet, La Russa left himself wide open by avoiding the obvious.

    It is not as if La Russa didn’t have past suspicions about steroids use on his own team, as did current Cardinals first base coach and former A’s strength and conditioning coach Dave McKay. At the time, during the original “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, there were no processes to deal with the issue, so everyone apparently just kept quiet.

    Directly from the Mitchell Report:

    “…La Russa and McKay acknowledged that they had suspected Canseco of using steroids when he was playing with Oakland. McKay said: ‘It just got to the point where you knew he [used them].’ Neither La Russa nor McKay shared their concerns with the Oakland front office, however. According to La Russa, ‘I thought, what’s the use? So I didn’t say anything.’”

    In a Wednesday St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Joe Strauss recounted the following discussion with La Russa this week:

    “La Russa referred to McGwire’s initial experimentation with steroids in 1989-90 as ‘a little flavor here and there. That is not right, either. But he was not a big abuser at that point,’ La Russa said.”

    If the manager didn’t know about McGwire’s use back then, during the final years of when Canseco and Big Mac were Oakland teammates, the only logical assumption one can make is that his hitting coach must have shared those details of his steroid use for the first time when he spoke with La Russa on Monday.

    As one might expect, the manager is defending his new hitting coach to the nth degree, including McGwire’s controversial, logic-defying stance that his long-term steroid use was solely for health reasons.

    ”He admitted his performance was enhanced when he took steroids because it kept him healthy,” La Russa said Tuesday. ”But he also worked on his stroke, put better spin on the ball, learned the game between pitcher and hitter and became more dangerous as a result. With that stroke, good things happened.”

    As MLB executives, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak together worked the details of McGwire’s re-entry plan with Fleischer and company leading up to Monday’s blitz, La Russa was kept on the outside.

    On one hand, I understand that, as the job of any team’s field manager is in the dugout, not in helping to define a very ticklish public relations rollout. On the other, this isn’t any manager, nor is La Russa detached from the story personally. There seemed both benefit and risk avoidance reasons for including La Russa in the process.

    La Russa had spent the last five years on a seemingly ever-shrinking island, angrily defending McGwire against any and all attackers while the former player himself remained far underground. A major pillar of that defense was La Russa believing McGwire when the slugger assured his manager he did not use steroids.

    In a January 18, 2009 New York Times interview that did not receive enough attention at the time, La Russa said the very thing he needed to this week, but did not.

    La Russa acknowledged that Canseco (and therefore by implication, his teammates, as well) may have been using drugs behind his back and those of his staff. La Russa remained firm that McKay ran a “100 percent straight” program in Oakland, but the manager explained that he and his coaches couldn’t be everywhere.

    “Now, as José (Canseco) said, when you go to the toilet or you leave the ballpark, Dave didn’t control that,” La Russa told the Times.

    In his defense of McKay, La Russa only reinforced the obvious – coaches can’t be with their players all the time. As such, especially when there was no drug testing, they could not be sure what the players were taking or not taking. Yet for reasons only he knows, La Russa did not say that again this week in McGwire’s context when he easily could and should have.

    One might wonder if in his staunch desire to defend his own, La Russa purposely drew more than his share of the heat in an attempt to take some focus away from McGwire. If so, the maneuver seemed instead to fan the flames that lap at both of them.

    Just as if McGwire had simply said something realistic like, “I have no way of ever knowing how the drugs I took affected my performance and results.”, had La Russa repeated his earlier comments, as common-sense as they seem, a lot less dirt would have been thrown around this week.

    Instead, the trenches around that lonely island are seemingly being dug even deeper – when they didn’t necessarily have to be.

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    Brian Walton

    Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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