Tony La Russa’s ARF conclave: Engrossing, inspiring, amazing

As a Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa made out 2,728 winning regular-season lineups. But, by his own admission, he was bolted awake at 2 a.m. Saturday morning by the realization he “had screwed up” in setting the speakers lineup for the final day of his ARF Pets for Vets benefit.
Robert O’Neill was on the bill. He is only the ex-Navy Seal Team 6 member who was integral to the rescue operations of Captain Richard Phillips from Somalian pirates, of Marcus Luttrell (the “Lone Survivor” of the intense film) from Afghanistan — and who fired the kill shots that brought down Osama Bin Laden.
O’Neill was to be followed by Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, basketball coaching legend Bobby Knight and Olympic swimmer Dara Torres. And La Russa titled <i>their </i> forum “Against All Odds.”
As O’Neill himself needled La Russa, “Compared to what I did? What the (bleep), Tony?”
Make no mistake, O’Neill absolutely enthralled and awed the audience in the Aria Resort’s Juniper Ballroom with background stories of his experiences. He lived a Quentin Tarantino-Martin Scorsese-Oliver Stone vision, with no one ever behind a camera to yell, “Cut!”
For half an hour, O’Neill had people shaking their heads in admiration. Once, however, he had them nodding in agreement — when he inadvertently touched on a leading takeaway from a three-day program on behalf of ARF’s mission to match homecoming veterans with dogs that help their transition back to civilian life:
Baseball remains stitched into the fabric of life. People in all walks of that life can tie formative events to the game, or relate unimaginable circumstances through the prism of baseball.
Consider O’Neill’s thoughts aboard the helicopter carrying Bin Laden’s corpse, with long odds against it being able to make it out of Pakistan.
“Five minutes became 10 …. then 15, 20. We just sat there, quietly,” O’Neill said. “Nobody said anything. It was like being in a perfect game. You didn’t want to jinx it.
“At 85 minutes, the pilot says, ‘Here’s words you probably never thought you’d be happy to hear: Welcome to Afghanistan.’”
Earlier, Kevin Cronin of classic rockers REO Speedwagon explained why he has always paused to engage fans and sign autographs as he is leaving a venue. regardless of the conditions:
“As a kid growing up in Chicago, I was Luis Aparicio. In those days, you could get into the Comiskey Park bleachers for 75 cents, and between innings we would go down to this hot dog shack in the left-field corner.
“The shack was behind this low chain-link fence. All you could see were the outfielder’s legs. But I’d bend down low and call out, ‘Hey, Minnie.’ And Minnie Minoso would look behind him and say, ‘What’s up fellas?” And that made me feel great. And I remember how it made me feel, and that’s why I always make time to stop and greet people.”
George Will, the brilliant political columnist, discussed the dynamics of the ongoing presidential campaign and placed a roster of sketchy candidates in the context of a famously combative manager:
“Earl Weaver, the diminutive manager of the Orioles, would storm out on the field to contest a call. He would put his face in the chest of the umpire, look up into his face and ask, ‘Are you going to get better, or is that as good as you get?”
But, of course, there were those moments when baseball was the storyline, not just a tangent. And so McCarver and Torre offered the episodes when they had to defy their greatest odds — mundane as they were compared to O’Neill’s.
For McCarver, it was as the Cardinals catcher in the dwindling days of the 1964 season — infamous for Gene Mauch’s Phillies blowing a 6 1/2-game National League lead with 12 games to go.
“We had to go into Pittsburgh to wrap up a ridiculous 18-game road trip. <i>Eighteen </i> games,” McCarver said. “Bob Friend was in danger of losing 20 games and the Pirates wanted to avoid that. And the big lefty, Bob Veale, had a sore shoulder, So we didn’t have to face one Pirates ace and didn’t have to deal with the top game of the other.”
The Cardinals swept a five-game series from the Pirates, overcame the Phillies, then the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
For Torre, it was the first World Series of his long career, both as a player and as a previously failed big league manager. In 1996, hired by the Yankees to the consternation of the New York media and fans, Torre led the Bombers to the AL East title and easy wins over Texas and Baltimore in the Division and Championship Series, respectively.
There was a problem with that: including a rainout, they had to wait a full week prior to the first game of the World Series. The Braves romped, 12-1 in Yankee Stadium.
Prior to Game 2, George Steinbrenner stopped by Torre’s office.
“This is a must game,” The Boss declared.
“And I’m kinda relaxed guy,” Torre related. “I just wanted to <i> get</i> to a World Series. Winning it was something else altogether. And Greg Maddux was pitching for the Braves that night. So I said, ‘George, we’ll probably lose. Maddux is pretty good.
“‘But don’t worry. We’ll go to Atlanta, win three games there, then come back and win it for you right here.’”
Which, of course, game-by-game is exactly how it came down. “George thought I must be some kind of genius,” said Torre, able to convert that episode into a 12-year run with the Yanks, who in the preceding 12 years had gone through nine managerial changes.

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