It’s hard to imagine World Series rings will ever be on these boney fingers again. And Tony put them there. No time was allotted to examine the rare rocks during the brief photo op encounter but the observation was simple. They were stunningly beautiful. Who cares if they don’t fit?
The evening of November 15th, 2013 at Purina Farms Event Center in Gray Summit Missouri, began and ended with a multitude of surprises. Tony La Russa came into town to give his first-time talk about two of the loves of his life: pets and baseball. Purina Farms was the perfect venue considering his long time partnership with the St. Louis area based leader in pet care and nutrition for the past 80 years.
The event kicked off with cocktail hour which included booths packed with information on three of the pet welfare organizations supported by Purina (Five Acres Animal Shelter, Gateway Pet Guardians, Franklin County Humane Society) and Tony’s sanctioned ARF Animal Rescue Foundation. Adorable adoptable dogs, that could have likely inspired even the most strict cat lovers to switch teams, were also on the scene. Just as the attendees started to indulge in scrumptious appetizers such as bacon wrapped water chestnuts, rescue dogs and their human counterparts eagerly lined up for the Pro Plan Performance Team demonstration. The obstacle course was small in comparison to Purina Farm’s adjacent 45,000 square-foot main exhibition hall but still sufficiently captured the spectator crowd’s attention. Clapping, cheering, and “awe so cute” exasperations resonated throughout the state-of-the-art indoor facility that opened back in August 2010. The canine performers had been close to termination via euthanization before being rescued and trained, which made their achievements even more impressive.
The event continued as guests are ushered upstairs for an elegant three course catered dinner and the much anticipated remarks by St. Louis Cardinals coaching legend, Tony La Russa.
Former Cards player Brad Thompson is inconspicuously seated at table 9, the microphone on his lapel almost escaping the view of others at his table. He jumps on stage to charismatically reminisce with the audience about his days with Tony and satirically quotes Abraham Lincoln “Whatever you are, be a good one” as Tony led his teams with this wise mantra. He particularly emphasized Tony’s inability to get star struck, even around visitors to the locker room such as Bill Cosby. However, Thompson recounts the shocking change in his reaction when the Westminster Best in Show champion “UNO” came onto the scene. Tony melted and his soft spot for canines over celebrities became apparent. He was not raised with pets. His first love was for his wife’s poodle. His favorite was a black lab terrier mix named “Res” due to the dog’s upbringing on an Indian reservation. “I looked right into his soul” he romantically states when asked more about the canine.
Upon Thompson’s conclusion of introductory statements, Tony took the podium. He played a tear jerker film about his ARF organization. “ARF has had a 4 star rating for six years in a row. We rescue them and they rescue us”. He sincerely concluded that pets and people are “better together”. In 1996, during a press conference, he noticed the Purina building in the background of Busch Stadium and remembers thinking “We’ve been together a long time. I work harder for the animals than I do for them”. It’s hard to imagine he could work any harder than he did for the Cardinals.
Tony’s pre-dinner presentation continues with clips of the historic Cardinals comeback against the Texas Rangers. Dry eyes were hard to find among the audience and the goose bumps were profound. “It had nothing to do with Moneyball. Incredible character and the will to win. They refused to lose”. An audience member asks “What about Matheny? How do you think he is doing?” The reply “If you are a player who has earned a good reputation as a leader, like Mike, players initially stand up and give you respect. But then you have to earn it by the way you lead the team and the decisions you make”. Questions about Pujols were also asked. Tony still talks to him daily. No love has been lost between them.
The caters grew anxious and wanted to serve dinner. Tony tells them to go ahead. He is used to talking while his “players” eat. He concludes after almost two hours with a reoccurring theme. “Try to find passion. If not in your career but at least in your personal life”. Hmmm sounds eerily similar to Purina’s “Your Pet. Our Passion” motto. No wonder they get along. And to the pleasant surprise of the many in attendance, Tony had so much to say. Every topic of conversation was supported by a real life story that often left the crowd laughing. His press conferences with the Cardinals never had this high level of energy or longevity.
The final passionate closing comments seemed to beg the question, how can you not be romantic about pets and baseball?