BOSTON - He couldn't, in some ways, be more different than the others.
Tony La Russa has graduated from college, has earned a law degree, has passed the Bar, has home-schooled his kids, has danced in a ballet, has gotten deeply involved in charity and has formed his own foundation to fund animal rescue efforts.
And yet he couldn't, in some ways, be more like the others.
Tony La Russa wants to win.
Stand on the field with him the night before he leads the St. Louis Cardinals into the World Series against Boston and ask him to reflect on the long path he has taken from a childhood in West Tampa, and he tells you it's about winning.
Ask him what it means to be back in the Series for the first time since 1990, when his A's were swept by Lou Piniella's Reds, and he tells you it's about winning.
Ask him if the job, after 26 years of managing in the majors, after 2,114 regular-season victories (and 1,846 losses), after taking 11 teams to the playoffs, is still fun, and he tells you it's about winning.
"The excitement, the challenge, the competition is great. You enjoy it more every time," La Russa said Friday. "The fun is whether you win."
La Russa, 60, has won plenty, ranking sixth on the all-time victory list, and needing only 81 more wins - a .500 season in 2005 - to vault into third, behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw. But he has won only one World Series championship (with the 1989 A's) in his first 10 tries and, before this month, he had a losing record in the postseason.
He has not, necessarily, won over all the critics.
When La Russa tries to be innovative, like batting his pitcher eighth, some think he is acting like he is smarter than anyone else. When La Russa gets too intense, like jawing with Cubs manager Dusty Baker, some think he is raving mad. When La Russa relies too much on the matchups and statistics, some think he has no feel for the game.
"He's different," said Tino Martinez, who played two years under La Russa before rejoining Piniella with the Devil Rays. "But he's good in his own way."
One thing that sets La Russa apart is his extensive, detailed, perhaps even anal preparation.
"I think Tony is one of those managers where before he goes to bed every night he has what he's going to do the next day already mapped out," reliever Ray King said.
"He's very deliberate in everything he does," said Boston reliever Mike Timlin, a former Cardinal. "He doesn't usually do things without a plan. He likes to calculate everything he does. He usually doesn't do anything without a reason - he's a lawyer."
There are times when La Russa gets outwardly emotional, such as when he yells at opposing players and spars with opposing managers. "He gets excited," pitcher Woody Williams said. "He'll jump up. He definitely brings fire to the club."
But his usual methods, the style that earned him the "genius" tag in George Will's book Men at Work, are intellectual, sometimes to a fault.
"He is not going to get beat mentally," closer Jason Isringhausen said. "Sometimes he may outthink himself, but he's always several moves ahead of everybody."
"He thinks a lot," Martinez said. "He doesn't just let guys go out and play. It's always about trying to find matchups and trying things. ... If you watch him in the dugout, he's never relaxed. He doesn't laugh. He could be up 10-0 and he's always thinking of ways he could lose the game instead of just relaxing and letting the players play. He's always preparing for the worst."
That focus and intensity is what makes La Russa special, longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan said.
"That's one of the things that separates him from others, that relentlessness to win. He just grinds it out," Duncan said. "It's very difficult to maintain that level of intensity over the course of our season because it's so long. You play so many games it would be normal that there would be periods of time when you're flat. That's the thing that always amazes me the most - he doesn't have a flat day. Every game is like the last game he's going to play."
Piniella enjoys matching wits with his former West Tampa American Legion Post 248 teammate, calling him a "Hall of Fame manager waiting to happen," and is well aware of how seriously La Russa takes his job.
"People talk about me being intense," Piniella said. "I probably look outwardly a little more intense, but he's probably more intense that I am. I kid around and have more fun. He's all business."
La Russa has grown and adjusted with times, part of what he considers the continuing education of a manager. This year, for example, he started meeting with veteran players to get their input on team issues. "He went out of his way this year to communicate more with the players," pitcher Matt Morris said.
As successful as La Russa has been, including four first-place finishes the past five seasons, and five overall in his nine years with the Cardinals, there has been criticism in baseball-mad St. Louis because he hadn't made it to the Series. It's not just happenstance that he is in the last year of his contract and there hasn't been an extension offered.
"We've gotten to the postseason four (previous) times and never gotten to the World Series, and (the fans) were never happy," La Russa said. "They weren't happy when we didn't have a chance and they were really unhappy when we had a chance and didn't make it."
Winning a second championship, and joining Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win one in each league, undoubtedly would silence the critics, however unfair they are.
"Does he need to be validated?" Duncan said. "I don't think he needs to be validated."
La Russa insists that it's not about him, that his priority is the team, that he is thinking about the players, especially those who haven't been on this stage, and that he wants them to have the experience of celebrating the ultimate championship.
The players know better.
"He wants to win," Morris said. "All he ever wants to do is win. And it's fueled even more now."