Tony LaRussa to Willie Wilson spring training of 1991

TWO YEARS WITH THE AS What did you do to them? You know they had you on a black list. I knew you could play, so I wanted you anyway.  I never wanted to leave the Royals. Thats a big misunderstanding with many of the Royals fans. I wanted to play my whole career here. I wanted to retire a Royals player, but that didnt work out. After the 1990 season, I became one of the expendable Royals, joining Frank White, Hal McRae, Amos Otis, Jorge Orta, Dan Quisenberry- all guys who had been key players in the World Series win just five years before. It was hurtful. I didnt understand why they were releasing me after hitting .290 that season. I mean, who releases a guy who is hitting .290. That was a higher average than any other player on the team except for George Brett. My two years with the As were enjoyable after getting over the disappointment of being released by the Royals.

So, now Im hoping that somebody else wants me. I dont know how many teams got in touch with my agent. It wasnt a lot, but when he mentioned the As, I stopped him right there and decided that was the team I was going to play with. When I was a younger man, I just loved the Oakland As uniforms. When I was watching baseball in high school, they were kicking booty. In 1990, they had just been in the World Series, so they were kicking booty again. Shoot, Oakland wants me. Im going to Oakland. I knew Tony LaRussa was a good manager. I didnt really know him as a man or a person, but I knew he got the best out of his players. I kind of figured my role was going to be a utility player. I go to spring training, and it was really different. I had never been to Arizona before to have spring training. I didnt know where to go, where to stay, anything. I knew Tony LaRussa a little bit. I knew the players, but I didnt really know them, if you understand what I mean. I had been in Royals blue all my life and had never tried on another uniform or never did anything except the Royals for 15 years. When I get over there, Im wearing yellow socks, green stirrups, white shoes, white pants (great pants), a green and yellow top. It was just different stuff, and I felt awkward. I felt like a fish out of water. The only guy I really knew on the As was Jamie Quirk, who had been let go by the Royals a couple of years before me. He was wearing my No. 6 on his uniform. His number when he was with the Royals was No. 9, and when he had gotten to the As Mike Gallego was wearing No. 9. I guess he chose No. 6 because it was just the 9 upside down. I ask him if I can have the number, and he tells me he wants $5,000 for it. I just said, You know what, Im just going to put a 1 on the side of my number because this is my first year with the As, and Im going to try and do something different. So that first year I was wearing No. 16. Everything was different about the As camp than the Royals. The first thing was the weather, the humidity. In Florida you are sweating, sweating, sweating. You get in shape really quickly. Out in Arizona you sweat, and in two or three minutes you are cool again. So, in some ways it was better because there wasnt the humidity. If you wanted to lose some weight, it wasnt going to happen. There wasnt as much rain, not as many rainouts. The skies were so high, just brighter and higher up. I misjudged a lot of balls out there when I was first coming to spring training like the first time I was an outfielder when I was a rookie.

We started camp at this college for two weeks for spring training. After two weeks, they broke everything down and took a certain number of people down to Phoenix Municipal Ballpark for the rest of spring training. I had never had to pack up my stuff together and then move to another spot. The other thing that was really different about Arizona is that the spring training trips were 20 to 30 minutes to another team. You might go to Yuma, and that would be a long trip or Palm Springs, Calif., But the rest of the time you were going 20 minutes instead of 3 and a half hours in the morning and 3 and a half hours back in the afternoon. I had never been on a team with so many superstars. We had George (Brett), we had Hal (McRae), we had Quiz (Dan Quisenberry) and Frank (White). They were all nice guys, and I dont think they thought of themselves as superstars. But with the As youve got Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire -the Bash Brothers – Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley … superstars everywhere. That was the first time I had been around that many people who thought of themselves that way. I had never been around a team that could hit home runs like they could. It was just really different for me, and I felt like a fish out of water. Im not having a great spring. I felt like nobody knew me. Here I was a Punch and Judy hitter, and they were all bashing home runs all over the place. How am I going to fit into this team? I really had a bad spring as Im going through the mental process of coming to another team and having the fans look at me differently than the Royals fans looked at me. A lot of things were going bad. To make it worse, I have a number on my back that is unfamiliar. I cant even get my own number. It was really bad. Thats when I really found out what a good guy Tony LaRussa was. One day in spring training he said, Walk with me down the line. He says, You gotta relax. Youre going to make this team. I know you can play. Thats why I brought you in here. Just be yourself.

Thats when he asked me what I had done to the Royals. I go, What are you talking about? He said there was a list and I was on the list. I dont know what the list is. Im not in a front office. But the way I understand a black list is that its something they have and they make it clear that they dont want anybody else to sign you or pick you up. Its like collusion, but they cant prove it. That really made me mad. Maybe Tony was lying to me to get me motivated, but I dont think he would. When I got to know him more and more, I understood that he didnt lie to his players. He told it like it was. He told you the truth. Thats why I respect him to this day. He was a good people person. Thats why he would get the best out of his players. He would tell me this is what he was going to do, and he never lied to me. That was pretty cool because I got lied to a lot in Kansas City. That sounds like that organization at the time. I wouldnt put it past them – not the new regime that is there now, but the old regime. At Oakland, it was a whole different ball game. The GM, Sandy Alderson, was a cool dude. He didnt walk around with a tie on all the time. He was wearing shorts and a nice shirt, just like we were. Im like, This is the GM. I mean you know. Wow. And even he would say stuff… I heard this about you Willie but youre a nice guy. I guess thats what the Royals did to me, they put it out there that I was a bad guy. That really angry me off. Nobody in the Royals organization – Im not talking about the players -took the time to really get to know me. So, when I got to Oakland, it was like a breath of fresh air. They treated me like a man. They were a little more free spirited out there. It was probably the perfect situation for me. I wasnt starting out there, so I didnt have the pressure of starting every day the first year I was there. It was different than Kansas City the year before when they didnt tell me anything. I never knew if I was going to be in the lineup or not. It was kind of neat at the As to be able to sit on the bench and have somebody hit a 2- or 3-run home run to win the game. The only bad thing was they had won the AL West the year before, and when we didnt win it in 1991 I felt like I was the reason they lost. I know thats silly. But they won in 1990, now they arent winning and Im the new guy coming in. Is it my fault? Is it this? Is it that?

The dynamic on that team was really different than the Royals, too. Rickey was easy to know. Jose was difficult. Jose thought I had just come up from AAA (laughter). Really. At least this is what I understood from (shortstop) Walt Weiss. Jose thought baseball couldnt survive without him. Were in Cleveland a little ways into the season. I come downstairs with Walt, and Walt says, Jose asked who you were the other day. He thinks you just came in from AAA. I dont know if Walt is joking or not, and Im going, Are you kidding me? Walt says, Hey man, thats just how Jose is. Jose and Walt were like bosom buddies. They would eat breakfast and lunch together almost every day. They wouldnt go out in the evening together because Walt was married … well, Jose was married too, but … you know the superstar thing. Rickey was really good to know, and Dave Henderson was a pleasure. He was just fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. If you saw him on the field, he was having fun. He taught me a little different way of playing the game – have fun at it. When he got hurt in 1992, the second year I was there – I had to play every day. I only played 110 games or so (113), and I only started about half the time (64) that first year in 1991. I do think I started every game that we played at Royals Stadium that year. Tony set up a regular rotation that I would play for Rickey every Tuesday, Dave every Wednesday, Jose every Thursday and pinch run or pinch hit the rest of the time. That would give those guys a regular day off. But every time we were coming into Kansas City Tony arranged it so those were the days I would be in the lineup. He knew I was angry off. Nothing was said, but he knew. If you had played for this team or that team, Tony knew you had some fire left. One time in there I made this really nice catch in left center. I got hit a couple of times and had a little flare up. I think it was Mike Boddicker who hit me. He hadnt even been a Royal, but I knew he was doing it on orders. So, after the second time I get hit, Im really angry. So, I come to bat again and Mike MacFarlane was catching. I looked at Mac, and I said, You tell Boddicker the first time he comes to Oakland, Im going to kick his butt.

And if I get hit again, Im going to kick your butt because you called the play. You called the pitch that hit me. Really, what I was trying to do is show them that they got rid of me too early. I had an attitude against them … its even vivid to me right now as Im talking about this. The fans were kind of mixed when I would come back to Royals Stadium A lot of them were yelling at me like I had left the Royals. They had it in their minds that I didnt want to play for the Royals anymore and I went to Oakland. But it wasnt like that at all. The Royals released me. So, the fans would boo me some, but that was OK. It was like that everywhere the As went. It was kind of funny. You play 15 years with a team, go to two World Series with them, go to four or five playoffs with them, rank in the top five of almost all their records, and they boo you. One plus of coming to Kansas City is that I did get to sleep in my own bed and stay at my own house. I really wanted to beat them I didnt like them at that time. I didnt like what they were doing. When you go to a different organization and you see how different that was compared to the tight-ass Kansas City Royals at the time. I just wanted to beat them every day. I was still friends with the players, and I remember one game in Oakland when I came in to pinch hit. Luis Aquino was pitching for the Royals. Louie and I hung out a lot when he first got up to Kansas City. So, we were pretty good friends. He had already asked me if I could give him a ride back to the hotel after the game. Thats how friendly we were. When I get up there, he throws a fastball, and I dont swing at it. He throws me a curve, and I hit it right back up the middle. He yells, Conjo. You say you no like curve ball! I yelled back, I dont like it, but I didnt say I couldnt hit it. He had heard me yelling in the dugout after I had struck out while Im in Kansas City. Id get struck out by a curve ball or a changeup or something. Id yell, I hate that pitch. So hes heard this and remembered it. Now that Im an older guy Im a little smarter, so Im thinking, OK, hes going to throw the curve ball.

Tony LaRussa to Willie Wilson spring training of 1991

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