Tony La Russa Versus The Youth Of America

Or: why commencement speeches, even those by baseball's grumpiest and most self-impressed geniuses, are universally bullshit.
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I can’t remember a single word or noteworthy turn of phrase that was uttered during my college commencement speech, besides that it was Cornel West up on the dais doing the talking. I do recall that, later that day, I somehow managed to worm my way into the Philosophy Department “Tea,” because word had gotten around that West would be making a personal appearance. So I wandered into the home of one of the few professors that I really dug, Dr. Lucius Outlaw—yes, that’s his real name—where I found him and West nose-to-nose, arguing vehemently (but somehow, oddly dispassionately) about some aspect of Critical Theory.

During one of the brief pauses, I burbled something about, “Cultural theft being necessarily dependent on the strictures of capitalism, and therefore it seemed that a purely Marxist critique would necessarily be the endgame of [West’s book] Race Matters. So, you know, like, why wasn’t it?” I believe I also invoked the Beastie Boys somehow. It was very, very dull and undergrad-ish and pretentious—the kind of thing a 22-year-old with a few lines of Paolo Freire to his or her credit regurgitates by rote in situations like this.

Whatever I said is almost besides the point, and anyway I don’t remember it very well, as these “Teas” were just thinly-veiled excuses for students to get hammered while polishing various professorial apples and/or scoring a sweet recommendation for grad school applications.

I was not there for either of those things, but still, Dr. West seemed to grok my little bit of insight. This I recall quite clearly. He said, “Brother Lucius, who is this fine young scholar of yours?” Prof. Outlaw introduced me and Dr. West took my hand and shook it vigorously while slapping me on the back, and repeating, “Yes, yes! Brother Robert, Brother Robert!”

The fact that Dr. West never answered my question became a moot point. I was Brother Robert! This, more than anything he said or did in his commencement speech, was what Cornel West was there to do.

It is, maybe, what commencement speeches are about. Before kids are handed a sheepskin and sent out into this brutal job market, they get to enjoy a little bit of reflected star power, by way of a pro forma speech of moderate length, given by a person of some renown. Sometimes you get Cornel West. This year, the graduates of Washington University in St. Louis got Tony La Russa. Win some, lose some.

***

For the most part, he led with his strong suit: generally true if thuddingly obvious bromides, none of which were even remotely customized for an audience of young people facing a lifetime of semi-crushing debt.

“The essence of personalization is that you personalize your feelings about yourself. Act in a way in which you earn your own respect. Don’t ever fool yourself.

“Care about what you represent and what you think of you. And then you translate this to the people that you work with: respect, trust and care.

“Frame of mind more than anything. Our team came together in a respectful, trusting, caring way. Our guts were outstanding. We refused to give in. We refused to give up. That’s exactly the message that you need to take forward.”

Okay, sure. Yes, fine. Those are some below-replacement-level platitudes—BERLP’s, let’s call them—and ‘our guts were outstanding’ sounds like something out of a postgame presser from the Japanese/Korean Leagues that was run through Google translate and just left hanging there, but none are what you’d call inaccurate or particularly galling. Tell us of your time with the Cards, that’s always fun!

Before leaving the podium, La Russa found time for one more Cards-related story.

He recalled the time he and pitching coach Dave Duncan argued over which one had to trudge out to the mound and remove Chris Carpenter, after the Cardinals pitching ace had given up another long hit into the gap.

La Russa lost and when he got to the mound Carpenter gruffly asked him “What are you doing here?”

La Russa explained that he thought Carpenter was laboring and he was there to take him out of the game.

“But I’m not tired!” Carpenter protested.

“I know that, Chris,” La Russa replied, “but our outfielders are.”

(Rim shot)

Then, things got weird. First up is Styx.

It occurs to me that, I mean I've talked to our teams about this for a long time now, there was a title of a song that Dennis DeYoung wrote for Styx, "Best of Times/Worst of Times." I hate the word "worst" but these are the toughest times.

Sure, it kind of makes sense that he’d invoke a band that peaked in the late 70’s/early 80’s. By ’83, he was knee-deep in resurrecting LaMarr Hoyt’s career and/or plotting the then-radical notion of putting a slew-footed, catcher/DH with the team’s highest OBP like Carlton Fisk in the two spot.

Given La Russa’s reputation for endless hours of work and total dedication to the game, it’s perhaps not surprising that he can’t think of a slightly more topical musical/lyrical reference. You might even be willing to give him a pass for lazingly dragging Dickens out of the grave under these circumstances.

But Tony was talking, do go on...

What do I mean by that? For all of you, things used to be simpler. Now there are a lot of distractions. When you go forward, values that used to be automatic are not. You have people who just look at you as a Washington University graduate, be envious, they haven't paid the price that you have paid, they will try to … I mean in terms of study and effort … and they will try to distract you and try to remind you, and those are tough.

Oh for fuck’s sake. Look, we already knew that La Russa’s politics tended to veer to the right, whether it’s his peevish uncle’s concept of dissent and/or his appearance at Glenn Beck’s Traveling Medicine Show. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion. But also this Tal Fortgangian whinging just has to freaking stop.

No, Tony La Russa, everyone that makes it in America did not get there by grit and spittle and tugged-upon bootstraps. Many people work really freaking hard and fail; some of them may have been in your captive audience that day. Many others woke up on third base and think they hit a freaking triple. Yes, I’m talking about James Dolan, but there are many others in his club.

There are systemic advantages in any capitalist system, and one should not feel aggrieved or beleaguered or God forbid, oppressed simply because someone dares to point them out, even if it’s just to give someone shit about their Wash. U bona fides. (Or razz them about the exploding costs of paying for a four-year degree).

And this brings us to the future, and being afraid of it:

There's also a real emphasis now on machines, and what they produce, and baseball, it's this thing with metrics and analytics and they claim that they can tell you who to play, how to play, when to make changes, and that's, it's a nice tool. I will suggest that you study and prepare with all that kind of information but when you get into it, be aware of the reliance on machines and prepared knowledge. So those are the worst of times. It used to be easier.

It is a nice tool. In fact, it’s a nice tool of which Tony himself always made fine use. The very same Tony La Russa that had an entire third of George Will’s ponderous baseball tome devoted to his willingness to parse numbers is here rather idly railing against them. Who is also the very same Tony La Russa who revolutionized baseball managing by paying attention to those stats where others did not.

That guy, the same one, is the Tony La Russa grousing that nowadays it's just the kids and the iPhones and the Twitter-ers and how that's just going to empower and embolden our future robot overlords. There is some vicious satire in ending this grump-riff with “it used to be easier,” but La Russa is more its object than its author.

***

So yes, this is all fairly silly grouchy dad stuff, and pretty patently false to boot. Then again, it’s a freaking commencement speech, the equivalent of a paid endorsement. And whether it's La Russa's rambling or some disturbingly cheery, worry-free non-thoughts from Condi Rice, it's a chance for the university to slap an impressive/famous/important name on the announcements, and maybe drum up a few more donations from the alumni. The kids stuck listening to it are, in most every way, besides the point.

Which is why this latest graduation season’s student/faculty protests—and other people being angry about the protests, and the yelling at the protesters and the handwringing about this entire commencement speaker debate—are all so ridiculous, and so exemplary of the dim and ceaseless outrage cycle of our national discourse.

Yes, college kids have the right to object to a political monster like Condolezza talking at them about Values, or even to protest Robert Birgenou, the Cal-Berkeley Dean who was chased away from my alma mater because he sicced his goons on Occupy protesters. These are reasonable things to object to, and students might as well do it.

But, finally, this is getting pissy about branding, as opposed to the degree to which a university is in bed with the Defense Department, or pours its endowment into fossil fuel-heavy hedge funds, or some greater outrage with less star power attached. No one, contra the Very Upset People on Fox News, is being silenced by these protests. That is because no one was talking in the first place during a commencement speech, at least beyond Tony La Russa’s maunderings.

La Russa’s bland dithering is the norm. It is maybe silly to mock him, but he should be mocked, if only for the perpetual sour grin and Belichickian smug superiority that remain his trademark. But this mockery is just that: a little bit of idle free speech in response to another, none of it terribly meaningful.

In a sense, La Russa is possibly the best choice a fine institution of higher learning could make. Nodding along to an authority figure’s word salad is good practice for the workplace. And the implied “do as I say, not as I do” in La Russa’s speech—especially given that he won by doing the opposite of what he said—is a nice lesson in workplace irony, too.

And, on top of all that, La Russa wound up providing an object lesson in the way work works, free of charge. Just days after telling the kids about Styx and complaining about All The New Things, La Russa got an actual job running the Arizona Diamondbacks. The system works.


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