The Mounties wanted Tony La Russa.
Back in May of 1968, a struggling Vancouver baseball team was desperate to shore up a porous infield. They had their eyes on a top prospect.
La Russa, then an intense 23-year-old from Tampa, began the season with the Athletics, a storied American League franchise that had just moved to Oakland from Kansas City. In their debut at their new home, La Russa stroked a single as a pinch-hitter to the delight of 50,164 fans.
A month later, after spot duty in four more games as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner, La Russa got demoted to the minors.
It took him four days to report to Vancouver, which led one of the newspapers to run a headline reading, “Help! Where are you, Tony La Russa?”
He arrived to a team struggling to stay out of the Pacific Coast League cellar.
Today, La Russa is a mad genius of the diamond, a skipper who changes his pitchers as often as Lady Gaga changes her wardrobe. Only the legendary Connie Mack and John McGraw have won more games as managers. He has two World Series titles and seeks a third this week against the Texas Rangers.
La Russa is joined in his quest by Dave Duncan, a clipboard veteran who has been a pitching coach for 32 seasons. Baseball’s Mutt and Jeff, they have been paired as skipper and pitching coach since 1986. Many years before that, the pair were teammates on the Vancouver Mounties.
Duncan was the starting catcher. La Russa covered second base.
At the time, sportswriter Greg Douglas wrote that La Russa “knows only one way to approach a game and that is to hustle until you simply run out of breath.”
The infielder stroked a single in his debut in Vancouver, where only 1,785 fans were in attendance.
Later that season, the Mounties managed a rare win on a night held to honour the owner, Nat Bailey.
“Let the people know we won this one for Mr. Bailey,” La Russa told Douglas. “We just decided on his night we wouldn’t lose no matter what.”
It was a woeful season for the Mounties, whose 58-88 record was the worst in the Pacific Coast League, a Triple-A circuit. According to a report in the Sporting News, Vancouver went a stretch of 33 games during which the team hit only two home runs. La Russa, not a power hitter, smacked them both. Many games were attended by fewer than 1,000 fans.
The club had three Canadians on the roster – first baseman Gerry Reimer of Enderby, B.C., outfielder Wayne Norton of Port Moody, B.C., and pitcher Vern Handrahan, a mailman from Charlottetown.
Mickey Vernon, the Mounties’ kindly manager, allowed the players to take part in stunts in the hope of attracting more people to the park. The Panamanian Ossie Chavarria, who liked Vancouver so much that he settled in the neighbouring suburb of Burnaby, played all nine positions in one game. In another, the clubhouse attendant, a 19-year-old university undergraduate, convinced the manager to allow him to be the starting pitcher for the final game of the season.
The kid did all right, allowing just one run over three innings. He even struck out a batter.
The game lasted just 64 minutes, as both teams were eager to get on with civilian life.
The rookie’s career lasted but the one game. (He signed a contract for the day in which he was paid $25. He was promptly fined $25 for wearing his spikes in the team’s business office.) Ernest (Kit) Krieger, who is now the registrar of the B.C. College of Teachers, caught up with La Russa while attending a baseball game in Miami earlier this year.
He reminded the Cardinals skipper about the final game of the 1968 season, the one that ended so quickly.
The manager sized up the paunchy, grey-haired, bespectacled 62-year-old in front of him.
“You pitched that game?!” he said.
Though the Mounties were dreadful in the field and pitiful at the plate, the sad-sack squad produced five future major-league managers – La Russa, Steve Boros, Joe Nossek, and the brothers Rene and Marcel Lachemann. You can look it up.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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