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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

La Russa: I Like Brendan Ryan

By Bernie Miklasz
04/23/2008 12:43 am

As much as I’d like to think I am on call 24 hours a day, sometimes I can’t get to the phone. Such was the case Tuesday morning when I was sitting in the dentist’s chair.

(Dr. Kevin Thorpe, by the way. He’s excellent, as is his staff, which includes Michelle and Jackie).

Anyway, I’m in the chair, and for once my Crackberry Blackberry was turned off. Much later in the day, I checked messages.

There was one on the voice mail from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who was about 90 minutes away from the first pitch of Tuesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Before I tell you what he wanted to discuss, please permit some background: La Russa is in his 13th year as the Cardinals manager. I’ve been a columnist and talk-show host in St. Louis for that entire time. Manager and columnist in a baseball-crazy town for 13 years? Sparks will fly on occasion. It’s inevitable. Every now and then, we have a disagreement. It’s really not a big deal, and as I have repeatedly said, I appreciate the fact that La Russa is a pro, and you can discuss things with him, and he’s willing to listen, and he’s also fair-minded that he’ll move forward instead of holding a grudge against a sportswriter. If he feels he’s been wronged, yeah, he’s aggressive. Just as I wouldn’t expect any sportswriter (including me) to succumb to initimidation. There is a healthy balance in this give-and-take.

Last year, however, was a rough one. The Cardinals had a brutally tough year. I don’t have to review all of the adversity that rocked the 2007 team; any Cardinal fan who pays attention is well aware of what went wrong. But Tony and me … well, let’s just say that the old manager and columnist didn’t communicate as well as we should have. (Blame that on me).

But near the end of the season, we had a long heart-to-heart talk, and cleared the air.

And we agreed that no matter what, we would try harder to keep the lines of communication open. I made sure La Russa had my mobile phone number. And I told him: call me anytime, even if you want to chew me out. I won’t take it personally. I prefer that the people I cover be candid, even if it means they’re going to raise some hell. It’s not an issue. After all, I don’t hesitate to state my opinion and sometimes it can be brash or harsh — so why should I be offended when an athlete, manager or coach wants to vent? They should be able to do so. And in my own airspace.

Over the winter, I talked to La Russa a few times. We kept the communication open. And so far this season, no problems. Sure, I won’t always agree with him on things — but that doesn’t really matter. That’s baseball. And second-guessing the manager (for fans and sportswriters alike) is a cherished baseball custom. La Russa is OK with that. He isn’t trying to hush dissent — but as a columnist, it isn’t up to me to censor his contrary opinions, either.

So if La Russa really wants to get something onto the record, I will get his words out. It’s only fair.

Accordingly, La Russa believes I’m incorrect in my opinion that he doesn’t seem to like Brendan Ryan, or is somehow irritated by the young infielder. And he’s concerned over the impact the perception may have on Ryan.

And so that’s why La Russa called from Milwaukee — to clear the air. And I positively think it was a good thing for him to do.

(A note: I tried to get into the Ryan stuff with TLR after Sunday’s loss to the Giants but he wasn’t in the most talkative of moods, which I understand. So we didn’t get very far. It happens. No harm, no foul.

(And keep in mind that when La Russa chose to address his opinions on Ryan, he did so in a call BEFORE the game against the Brewers, and hours before shortstop Cesar Izturis got injured. Because of that injury, Brendan Ryan will be called up from his minor-league injury rehab on Wednesday, and he’ll join the Cardinals in Pittsburgh. But it’s important to note that La Russa praised Ryan before he actually needed to summon Ryan).

Anyway, here’s what TLR had to say, and yes, he was polite:

“It’s a mistake to say that there’s something I don’t like about Brendan Ryan. I’ve heard that, and read that the other day, and I know people are thinking that. So…

“When you manage, you can’t afford to be personal with dislikes or likes. It has to be objective, because there’s a lot at stake. But also, besides that qualifier, there isn’t anything about Brendan that bothers me. There isn’t anything personal.

“I like him, and I think he knows it. I’m concerned that he would start to have some doubts, and this would affect his game.

“The only thing is, he plays ‘young.’ And at some point you need to call that to his attention. Otherwise, he’s not going to improve, and he’s not going to be the player he can be. This is a guy that played a lot for us last year, because he played well, and he deserved it.

“And when he gets in shape, and he can help us, he’ll be a part of the team.

“But the big thing is, there isn’t anything about Brendan Ryan that I don’t like, nothing that’s an issue. And it bothers me that there’s that belief by anybody. And I worry about the consequences. It’s not the case. I like him. But whether it’s him or anybody else, you have to set a guy straight because that’s the only way players improve.”

Later in the day, in exchange of text messages, La Russa said: “It can never be personal. It’s always about the best chance to win. Ryan just needs to be good enough, in my opinion.”

As I close, let me say this: anytime La Russa wants to address an issue in this blog, he’ll be given the chance.

We’ll call it Tony Talk.

This was the first installment.

Thanks for reading…

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