Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2011, 12:00am

Tony LaRussa is the ultimate enabler. You only wish that you had a boss like him. Actually, you only wish you were one of his favourites because if you were, he would berate and discredit anyone with the temerity to question your moral character and do it all with a very stern tone.

No, LaRussa is not a lawyer, although he does have a law degree and was admitted to the Florida Bar many years ago. He is a baseball manager for the St Louis Cardinals; a very successful one who is third on the all-time list of victories and one day soon will be in baseball's Hall of Fame. He is also arguably the most naive 'intelligent' man in the universe, or so he would like you to believe.

For years LaRussa has run a one-man campaign extolling the virtues of disgraced slugger Mark McGwire, a hulking behemoth long suspected of using performance-enhancing steroids to help him shatter historic home-run records. Despite a plethora of evidence against McGwire, LaRussa insisted his man was clean right up until the moment last year when McGwire publicly admitted he had used steroids for years. LaRussa said he was surprised and shocked and he said it all with a stern face and nary a whiff of embarrassment.

This past week LaRussa made news for once again illogically absolving his current superstar slugger, Albert Pujols, of any blame. In a story that held Major League Baseball hostage as spring training camps opened, Pujols refused a new contract offer from the Cardinals, saying he would no longer negotiate with them this year and effectively become a free agent at the end of the season.

Pujols is far and away the best player in baseball and has been for a good five or six years. He is on pace to become one of the greatest players of all time and at only 31 years of age and in good health, he appears to have a number of quality seasons in front of him. An iconic figure in St Louis and throughout the Midwest, Pujols did not even make the list of the 25 highest paid players in baseball last year. Ridiculous as it sounds, he was woefully underpaid at US$15 million last season and now he is done with giving the Cardinals a hometown discount and understandably wants to be the highest-paid player in the game.

But according to LaRussa, Pujols is not being greedy because he figures the players' union has told Pujols that he must get as much as possible to set the bar higher for future player contracts. 'I know what he's going through with the union and, to some extent, his representatives, because his representatives are getting beaten up by the union,' LaRussa said. 'I know that he's getting pressured. And it's not arm-twisting. It's dropping anvils on your back and through the roof of your house.'

LaRussa later admitted he had no concrete proof of this. Still if it was true, isn't it the job of a union to look out for their members? But despite his manager's rant, for the first time in his glorious career there is a small backlash to Pujols building in St Louis. After all, the guy has made over US$100 million playing baseball the past 10 years so how much does he need? Apparently Pujols' people are asking for a US$300 million contract over 10 years which I am certain you are thinking is complete insanity.

Personally, I have never understood the default mechanism in sports fans that automatically sides with owners in pay disputes because players are irredeemably greedy and money-hungry. Let's say your contract is coming up and you are the top dog in your workplace. Naturally you wouldn't ask for top dollar because that would be heartless and greedy and you're a good company man or woman so you don't have a problem taking below market value to keep peace in the universe. Sure, I believe you.

While the amount that Pujols and his people are negotiating over is significantly more than the salary numbers your employer throws at you, how is his case any different? He should get paid more than anybody in baseball and after factoring into the equation quality of life, he should make as much as the market dictates even if it is an obscene amount. As Jackie Gleason once said, you're not overpaid if somebody pays you.

LaRussa knows this and he also knows quite well that nobody can pressure the strong-minded Pujols. Well, maybe his wife but other than that nobody. The fact that LaRussa would intimate otherwise helps to reestablish him as one of the least credible people in sports and a hypocrite on par with any self-deluding politician. For years LaRussa managed the Oakland A's, a team generally conceded to be ground zero for the steroid revolution in baseball. Bear in mind that baseball, more than any other sport, is built on gathering intelligence and scouting of both your opposition and your own team. And yet LaRussa claims he had no idea that any of his players were taking performance-enhancing drugs despite their seemingly overnight increase in size and their suddenly Herculean feats on the field.

There were more than rumours, as FBI files from as far back as 1990 containing claims from informants that McGwire was using steroids. LaRussa also vehemently dismissed the detailed doping allegations of McGwire's pumped-up Oakland teammate Jose Canseco as total fabrication. No, he is not the most complicit enabler in the history of baseball. The game itself is guilty of that inherent hypocrisy. But Tony LaRussa is the most pious and embarrassing. For that he deserves every bit as much scorn as the superstars he so vigilantly protects.