Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Crossing the bay with Tony La Russa and his three big rings in one small boat

Tony La Russa is one of the greatest managers in baseball history.  He's third on the all-time wins list, one of only a very few to win a World Series in both the American and National Leagues - and one of a small, select number to be named Manager of the Year in both those leagues.

I mean, I'm still a little hacked off that he beat the San Francisco Giants in 1989, but I've gotten over that.


So when I found out that he was coming to the store to promote his memoir, One Last Strike, I was excited.  The only thing better than baseball is a good baseball story, and I had no doubt that Mr. La Russa had a good story to tell.

On the morning of the event, just before we opened, I received a phone call.  It was a representative for Mr. La Russa - Elena - asking if I had a boat.

At first, I thought she was pulling my leg.  We'd already changed the time and day of the event - twice - so I fancied that the caller was having a little fun at my expense.

Stolen from a Lara Morris Starr post.
Turns out Elena was deadly serious.  See, when they last rescheduled the time of our event, 48 hours before it was set to happen, someone hadn't taken into account that the reason for the change was so Mr. La Russa could be at the Giants' game that night.  But our bookstore is on an island in the bay - not in San Francisco, not at all - so timing had become an issue.  There was no way to get from Alameda to the City, not by driving on the freeway.  880 Gridlock was guaranteed - not only because of the traffic for the game, but for the traffic with everything happening in San Francisco that weekend.

But if I had a boat - if we could bypass the cars by taking the water?  Mr. La Russa just might make the game.

Turns out, though, I don't have a boat.

I know, I know - bookselling is such a booming concern that people think we booksellers do have that yacht waiting for us at the dock, along with the caviar and the supermodel.

Alas!  Not I.  However, I do know boat owners, and after ascertaining that Elena wasn't kidding, I made some calls.  I started with the person who was closest to me - close in the sense of working right across the street at Tucker's Ice Cream.  Kate would be helping us out later that day - before Mr. La Russa signed his books, we were having a tail-gate.  Kate was providing chocolate malts, the good people from the Alameda Education Foundation were cooking up hot dogs - we had planned on having a regular ol' party.

But while Kate and David did indeed have themselves a boat, it was a sailboat.  Not a perfect solution because sailboats are fickle, literally subjects to the whims of the wind.

Then I sent a message to another friend who lives on the island - but that other friend didn't get the message in time.  It was Saturday morning, after all - people were busy with their weekend lives.

Candymaker or Captain?
Three times is a charm, yes?  So I called Jengiz.  After a quick session of phone-tag, I got hold of him.

You want me to take Tony La Russa across the bay in my boat? Jengiz asked.

I do, I said.  I do.

There are many ways that Jengiz could have answered my query.  He could have asked if I was kidding (my initial response).  He could have asked for details.  Hell, he could have hung up.  So I wasn't expecting an enthusiastic - Sure!  That's sounds great.

Right now?  All I'm saying is - everyone needs a friend with a boat, a friend who will assent to offer last year's manager of the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals a ride across a blustery San Francisco Bay at a moment's notice.

On his boat.

Just so you know - Jengiz said - it's small.  Sixteen feet.  And sixteen feet isn't big when you're talking about a boat.

I said I'd explain that to Elena, that I'd have her call him.

There was then a series of phone calls between Elena and Jengiz, where Jengiz reiterated that he'd be happy to be the Ferryman, but that the ferry in question was not big.  Was in fact small.

This was not a problem, Elena assured him - because a boat was required and Jengiz had a boat so we were in business.

I will take this moment to assert that there should be a Bookseller's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and that we Alameda booksellers should be enshrined there because WE FOUND A BOAT FOR AN AUTHOR IN THE AMOUNT OF TIME IT TAKES A PITCHER TO WARM UP.

I'm just saying.

Courtesy of Gregg Cevallos
My last conversation with Elena ended with her saying that if I went on the boat - as Jengiz had suggested - she'd appreciate it if I looked after Mr. La Russa.  He's not great in the water, she said, so if there should be any trouble....

She let that thought be washed away with the tide - and then she laughed.  I have a lot invested in him, she laughed again, so you both take care, ok?

We sold a lot of books that afternoon.  We'd have some angry customers that night, customers who'd come when we'd been advertising the event.  But that afternoon?  With folks looking at the Three Rings Mr. La Russa took off his fingers so people could get a better look?  Three Rings indicating Three Championships - any one Championship the result of so many quirks, so many good decisions, so many breaks, that determining the odds of winning just One is beyond the realm of the best mathematicians and the smartest bookies.  And there was Mr. La Russa with Three.

After the event, Mr. La Russa followed us (Jengiz, his wife and two kids, me) to the dock at Jack London Square in Oakland.  Jengiz' wife, Claudia, had brought their two little girls to the store.  They would accompany Jengiz and me across the bay.  We all chatted there in the back - about Claudia teaching in Oakland, about Jengiz' work as a nurse - and when Mr. La Russa found out my coworker, Duane, was a Pats fan, he pulled out his camera and showed Duane pictures of Belichick and the gang at games from Spring Trainings past.

Just shooting the breeze, but the trip across the bay loomed.  When Mr. La Russa asked if Claudia would also be going, she said no.

Mr. La Russa laughed, laughed and said he'd feel better - safer? - if a school-teacher accompanied us, figuring that she had more sense than Jengiz and I (which is undoubtedly true).

There's not room, Claudia said.  It's a pretty small boat.

How small?  Well, that question was answered when we arrived at Jack London Square and walked down the dock where Jengiz had moored his boat.  On the right side of that dock was a beauty of a boat.  Long and sleek, it looked like something out of Flash Gordon, all chrome pipes and polished teak and ready for a runway.

That wasn't Jengiz' boat.

On the left was another gorgeous creation - smaller, a bit, but with brass and darker wood, both gleaming.

That wasn't Jengiz' boat, either.  And actually, you couldn't see Jengiz' boat as we marched down the dock because that second boat?  The shiny, smaller one with brass?  It hid Jengiz' boat.

Courtesy of Claudia Hung Haas
Jengiz' boat?  It's super cute.  If I had a boat, it's the kind of boat I'd have.  It would be perfect for me and Karen and the girls to take out on a calm day.  And everything that I'd learned about Mr. La Russa in the short time I'd been around him that afternoon - that he was informal, that he didn't stand on ceremony, that he insisted on being called Tony, not Mr. La Russa - spoke to the fact that he was truly grateful for the ride and that it didn't matter that the boat was, yes, small.

Still, it was kind of funny.

Jengiz unmoored that good ship Lollipop and we headed off - but with me sitting in the back, the boat rode low in the water, so Jengiz had me sit on a bench tucked in the front, while his girls moved aft.  The first wake we hit sent the boat up and then down, fast - sending me up and then down even faster.  I cracked my head on the way up, and then crashed through the bench on the way down.

I don't think I broke the bench - I think it actually was designed to come apart the way it did.

I think.

We hit a few more wakes like that, going up and then coming down, hard.  At one point, Mr. La Russa, er - Tony - inquired if it was concrete that we had landed on and not water, because it felt pretty solid on the follow through.

Jengiz kept asking if we were ok - he wasn't too concerned about his beautiful girls, they were absolute little giggle monsters there in the rear, totally unconcerned with the wobbly trip.  Mr. La Russa - I mean, Tony - finally answered that the reason he was wearing his sunglasses was so Jengiz and I couldn't see that his eyes were rolling around in his head like marbles.

Wake - thump - smash.

What do you talk about when you're late for a playoff ballgame and you're chugging across the bay to McCovey Cove?  Baseball stuff, for sure.  How'd Tony feel about Ron Washington not making it back to the Series?   Not bad, not bad at all.

How'd he feel about the blown Infield Fly against the Braves?  Mainly, he'd asked Commissioner Bud Selig what the protocol was.  Turns out, there is no protocol, it's a judgment call, and as such it is not subject to review.

But I was most interested in the non-arcane things we discussed.  Get any group of people of a certain age together in a room - and if they've been in the Bay Area long enough, and if today's date is looming - if October 17th is in the air - someone's sure to ask, Where were you during the earthquake?

23-years-ago today, just after five in the afternoon, I was underground at the Powell Street BART station headed home to Oakland to catch the end of the game when the ground shook and the lights went out and people started screaming - and without the benefit of emergency lights, I lit my Zippo and led some folks up through the dark and into the light of that pretty but awful afternoon.

Tony?  Of course he had the story to trump all stories.  His Oakland A's had won the first two games of the 1989 World Series.  Game 3 was set to begin on October 17th at 5:35 p.m. - but at 5:04, the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook Northern California.

Tony said that after the A's took those first two games, his rival in the other dugout, Roger Craig, told him - Just you wait.  You haven't heard fans like the fans we have in San Francisco.  It's going to be so loud, you're not going to know what hit you.

So there's Tony, sitting in the dugout before the game, and he says, I heard this sound unlike anything I'd ever heard before, and I thought, Craig wasn't kidding.  It was loud.  But then I looked out at the light towers across Candlestick Park and they were swaying back and forth, and I that's when we knew that something else was happening - and Tony La Russa was at the television center of it.

That's what we talked about - just stuff.  Again cementing the notion that Mr. La - Tony - was unpretentious in the extreme.

I almost forgave him the outcome of the '89 World Series.


Then the ballpark was ahead, and Jengiz maneuvered to a small dock about the size of your dining room, a dock I'd never noticed before because it's dwarfed by the dock for the ferry.  Jengiz jumped off and tied his boat down, and was quickly followed by his kids, by Tony, and then me.

I was going to take a quick picture of Jengiz and his kids with Tony before he hustled off to the game - and that's when the harpy started yelling at us.  There was a steep set of stairs leading from that small dock up to the promenade behind the park, and at the top of those stairs stood a security person yelling down at us that we weren't allowed on that dock and to get the heck out of there.

Jengiz, with a maestro's confidence, gestured to our guest and shouted - But this is Tony La Russa.

Tony held out the quite impressive MLB passes that he now wore around his neck - but the harpy didn't care, or didn't know who Tony was, and she kept kvetching at us.

My last image of Tony is of him standing at the top of the stairs, trying to convince the harpy that she should unlock the gate so he could get going on be his way - when suddenly, the Blue Angels thundered by overhead.

With our trusty Captain back at the controls, we left McCovey Cove and headed back across the big water to the East Bay.

The lights of the City were just coming on.  Jengiz tousled his daughter's hair and smiled.

Did we just give Tony La Russa a ride across the bay? he said.

We did, I said.

And so we both smiled.

I knew this was going to be a good day, he said.  And indeed - Jengiz had posted that morning:   Oh how great it is to be getting up this morning and thinking how beautiful the Bay Area is.



  1. Minor addendum: My trumperette story I did share with Tony and you about the Loma Prieta earthquake. I got engaged that day in S.F. Bought a diamond ring at Tiffany's. We whipped across the Bay Bridge listening to Frank Sinatra 15 minutes before the quake. Should have known it'd be a Rocky Marriage! Needless to say it is not the one I'm in now!

    1. Yes, right! I knew it was a good one - and that's a good one!