The closest I can get Tony La Russa to Bernie Madoff is that La Russa manages the St. Louis Cardinals and Madoff managed a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme. Or perhaps La Russa has a law degree and Madoff has been dealing with assorted people with law degrees.
Yet this week the two men – La Russa in Jupiter, Fla., Madoff in Butner, N. C. – made comments about baseball matters that are undermined by their questionable behavior and comments in other matters.
La Russa, who has always been a fierce defender of his players, felt the need to come to the aid of his premier player, Albert Pujols, in the superstar’s contract negotiations with the Cardinals.
Pujols has an experienced, capable agent, Dan Lozano; he has a year left on his $111 million contract and will earn $16 million in the eighth year of that deal, which he signed when he had only three years in the majors, and is a mature adult of 31 years of age.
But La Russa felt the need to speak out in support of Pujols, making the union the bad guys in the fruitless negotiations that ended at the previously proscribed deadline of noon Wednesday.
The Cardinals have close to another year in which only they can sign Pujols to a new contract. “The expiration of today’s deadline does not eliminate the possibility of Albert returning to the Cardinals in 2012, but simply delays negotiations until the conclusion of the Cardinals’ season,” Lozano said.
As the deadline neared, whether he was concerned that he might have to manage beginning next year without Pujols or he was trying to defuse the spotlight on his star player, La Russa told reporters in the team’s spring camp that the union was pressuring Pujols to hold out for more than he might want.
“I know what he’s going through with the union, and to some extent his representatives, because the representatives are getting beat up by the union,” La Russa told reporters Tuesday. “Set the bar, set the bar, and that’s [bunk], really and truly. You’ve got to deal with it. It’s not the way it should be.”
La Russa, of course, had no direct knowledge that anyone at the union had said anything to Pujols or Lozano. But management people have said for years that the union pressures players and agents to demand bigger contracts than they would otherwise seek. If the best players sign for more money, their argument goes, they pull other players up the salary scale with them.
“I checked with some of our veteran coaches,” La Russa said Wednesday, having no more evidence of the phantom pressure than he had a day earlier. “It strains credibility a little bit to think there hasn’t been any contact or mention. He’s too significant.”
You want to talk about credibility? Let’s talk about La Russa’s credibility. In spring training of 2005, the day after Mark McGwire repeatedly told a Congressional committee at a hearing on steroids in baseball, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” La Russa steadfastly defended his former first baseman.
Everyone else who saw or heard McGwire utter his infamous remark was certain that he was, in effect, hanging himself on a non-denial denial. All of those people learned five years later – when he admitted it last January – that McGwire was indeed guilty of having used performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire’s public admission must have come as a shock to La Russa.
“I was surprised by it,” La Russa said of McGwire’s approach. “He’s made a statement where he’s denied it. I thought it was a great time for him to make that same statement. He had the biggest stage of all to say it and it looked to me like he was coached in the other direction and it surprised me.”
La Russa returned to the same refrain twice more in that brief session with reporters in Jupiter. “A couple of key comments were not made,” he said. “He repeated that one thing over and over again like he had been coached that that was a smart thing to say.”
It was suggested that perhaps McGwire had not repeated his earlier statement because he was speaking under oath.
“In my opinion,” La Russa said, “being under oath wouldn’t have changed what he would have said. I don’t take that conclusion; I believed him when he made the statement.”
La Russa didn’t say what the McGwire statement he referred to was. Nor did he say, “Maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe Mark did use the stuff.” Had he said such a thing, La Russa’s credibility would have soared. He was, however, more interested in protecting McGwire.
This week he was more interested in sticking up for Pujols, even though Pujols didn’t need anyone sticking up for him. Not even the union.
Michael Weiner, the union’s executive director, firmly refuted any accusation that he or anyone else at the union was pressuring Pujols or his agent.
“It’s completely inaccurate that we’ve put pressure on Albert or any of his representatives,” said Weiner, whose veracity I have found to be unimpeachable. “We haven’t had discussions with Albert or his agent about the numbers that are being discussed.”
Union officials have no such discussions with any players or agents, Weiner said. The union, he explained negotiates the system that enables players and agents to negotiate whatever they want. The numbers are their own choosing.
Noting that Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia for less money than he could have had elsewhere with no input or interference from the union, Weiner said, “We created an environment in which Cliff Lee could decide where he wants to play, whatever the money is.”
Ron Shapiro is a prominent agent best noted for negotiating contracts that enable free agents to stay with their teams when they want to. He successfully did that for Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and, most recently, Joe Mauer.
“I didn’t receive a call or pressure from the union that suggested I should hold out at a certain price or go in a certain direction,” Shapiro said. “This is not a union thing. The only place you see the union get involved is in salary arbitration, when players are filing numbers.”
Bernie Madoff played with numbers, numbers that reached into the tens of billions. They were fraudulent, and as a result Madoff is in a Federal prison in North Carolina, a year or so into a 150-year prison term.
On the same day that La Russa engaged in union bashing, Madoff was interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times and, among other things, spoke about the owners of the New York Mets, who were huge investors in his fraudulent fund.
Irving Picard, the trustee for Madoff’s victims, has sued the owners for as much as $1 billion, charging that they knew or should have known that Madoff’s scheme was a fraud.
“They knew nothing,” Madoff told the reporter and said it a second time. But why should we believe Madoff once, twice or more times? The man lied about billions and billions of dollars. He lied to wealthy people, he lied to foundations, he lied to elderly people who invested their life savings with him. There’s no reason to believe anything he says.
Madoff has less credibility about the Mets’ owners than La Russa had about McGwire, La Russa didn’t do anything criminal. He was simply guilty of blind belief in a steroids cheat.
McGwire didn’t ruin anyone’s life but his own. Madoff ruined lots of peoples’ lives, including that of his son, who hanged himself.
Maybe Fred Wilpon didn’t know anything. But if he wasn’t ignorant or dumb, he was greedy, too greedy to see or care that the man he was dealing with was a crook.
Crooks or cheats, people who deal with them or believe in them, end up with a credibility problem.