Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tony La Russa's humble Vancouver beginnings

Tony La Russa, an intense 23-year-old infielder, joined the Vancouver Mounties in May, 1968. The team finished in last place, but the roster included five future major-league managers. Photograph courtesy the David Eskenazi Collection.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 27, 2011

Tony La Russa changes pitchers as often as Lady Gaga changes wardrobes.

The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals is a mad genius of the diamond. His stratagems have earned him two World Series titles. Only the legendary Connie Mark and John McGraw have enjoyed more victories as managers.

Yet, in Game Five of the World Series, the Cardinals brain trust suffered from brain cramps.

A fresh pitcher arrived with orders to issue an intentional walk. After making four easy lobs, he was dismissed for the night.

A failed hit-and-run play resulted in the slow-footed Allen Craig churning along the base path like a doomed dispatch runner in the mud on the Western Front.

After the game, a 4-1 win for the Texas Rangers, who can claim their first World Series with a victory in St. Louis on Thursday night, La Russa blamed crowd noise and confusion on the telephone to the bullpen for the fiasco.

At one point, he greeted a reliever on the pitching mound with the words, “What are you doing here?”

La Russa’s pitching coach, Dave Duncan, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “How this happened, I have no idea. But I blame myself.”

Back in British Columbia, the drama was watched on television with keen interest by two former ball players.

Gerry Reimer, 73, of Enderby and Wayne Norton, 68, of Port Moody, played together on the Vancouver Mounties in 1968. Reimer covered first base, while Norton patrolled behind him in right field. The team’s starting catcher was Duncan, while the second baseman was La Russa, an intense 23-year-old with more ambition than skill.

The infielder arrived in Vancouver after being demoted by the parent Oakland A’s. At the time, the sportswriter Greg Douglas wrote that the prospect “knows only one way to approach a game and that is to hustle until you simply run out of breath.”

All hoped to catch on with a big-league club. Duncan and La Russa made it. Reimer and Norton did not.

Norton has kept his hand in the game, too, as a Seattle Mariners scout responsible for Canada and Europe. Looking back, he can see why La Russa had only modest success as a major leaguer, spreading 132 games over six seasons on three clubs.

“He had limited tools as a player,” he said. “There are five tools you look for” — fielding, arm strength, running speed, hitting for power, and hitting for average — “and he was not outstanding in any of them.”

Norton spent several seasons with La Russa in the Athletics system.

“I roomed with him on the road,” he said. “In Des Moines (Iowa), Vancouver, and Birmingham (Ala.). He was serious and dedicated.”

The 1968 Mounties included three Canadians on the roster, a rarity at the time, as Norton and Reimer were joined by right-handed pitcher Vern Handrahan, a mailman from Prince Edward Island known for chewing toothpicks, a nervous habit he maintained even while on the mound pitching.

Reimer remembers the Mounties being a close-knit squad. He had the team over for a barbecue at his house on Windsor Street, a long fly ball from the park. The company and the home-cooked meal were welcomed by out-of-towners like Duncan and La Russa.

Reimer also remembers a friendly atmosphere at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium, where he recalls his four-year-old son being bounced on the knee of one of the Phillipone brothers, owners of the notorious Penthouse Cabaret, a strip club frequently raided by police.

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.

Mickey Vernon, the Mounties’ kindly manager, allowed the players to participate 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.) He later became a teacher and a union president. 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.

Oddly, the woeful ’68 Mounties produced five major-league managers — La Russa, Steve Boros, Joe Nossek, and the brothers Rene and Marcel Lachemann.

While Norton is cheering for La Russa, Reimer is not. The son who bounced on the cabaret owner’s knee went on to crack a major-league roster. Kevin Reimer, a slugger like his father, broke in with the Texas Rangers.

The linescore foe the final game of the Vancouver Mounties' woeful 1968 season. Teenaged pitcher Kit Krieger made his debut as a professional by pitching the first three innings. It was also his final game. Note how the Sporting News misspelled his name.


SchuyBreach said...

Hi, I just clicked "next blog" on the top and yours came up! I was just reading this post and I thought it was really good and funny!

RossK said...

That's some line Mr. Krieger has....

For all time.


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