Tony La Russa is pleased to see baseball go to the dogs

Tony La Russa

St. Louis Cardinals former manager Tony La Russa looks on from the field before a game between the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins at Target Field. (Jesse Johnson / US PRESSWIRE / May 25, 2012)

ORLANDO, FLA. -- Tony La Russa reaches down to pet a dog at the Global Pet Expo (March 12-14 at the Orange County Convention Center here), the pet industry's largest trade show with nearly 1,000 exhibitors. As he gently strokes the puppy, La Russa's three World Series rings are unmistakable.

La Russa, 69, is clearly as comfortable around animals as he was in the dugout for 34 years as manager of the Chicago White Sox, the Oakland A's and the St. Louis Cardinals, and before that for several years as a player. As a manager, he led teams to six pennants and three World Series championships, and will be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame this summer.

Asked if there was a "saving-the-animals hall of fame" and if induction into that group would be equally important, La Russa chuckles but answers in the affirmative. La Russa and his wife, Elaine, founded the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in 1991, when he was managing the Oakland A's.

It all began when a stray cat wandered onto the field during an A's home game against the Yankees in 1990. La Russa proved he could signal players when to steal bases -- and also herd cats. While umpires and players chased the cat without coming close to catching it, the terrified kitty was gently herded into a bathroom adjacent to the dugout by La Russa.

"Elaine knew that if we gave the cat to animal control, it would be euthanized," recalls La Russa, "So, we went around town looking for a place to take the cat, and no one would. That was an eye-opener -- not a single no-kill (shelter)." Eventually, the La Russas did find a loving home for Evie the cat, and were inspired to create the Animal Rescue Foundation. Since the nearly 38,000-square-foot ARF facility was built in Walnut Creek, CA, thousands of animals have found homes.

While the original ARF mission was to rescue animals, La Russa points out that today many of the animals also rescue people.

"We find people in need, including seniors, victims of violence like battered women, or it could be abused kids, or for education (in schools), and we bring our animals with perfect temperaments to them," he says "It's all magical therapy."

Last year, in the Bay area, ARF's People Connect program impacted 184,000 individuals.

"You know how when you go home and you see that wagging tail and feel this warmth; we take that and spread it to people with needs," says La Russa. "Our latest effort is to put pets with veterans."

Another new idea has spread from the Bay area across the country, combining La Russa's love of animals and love of baseball. Back in the late 1990s, at the old Comiskey Park, the Chicago White Sox were the first major league team to launch a promotion, which they still refer to as "dog days." Each summer, fans sit in the outfield bleachers with their best 4-legged friends to enjoy a game.

The first White Sox event was so successful that many major league and minor league teams have replicated the promotion in various formats.

In 2014, Major League Baseball will officially team up with Central Garden and Pet Co. brands, such as AvoDerm natural foods and Nylabone, to support Bark in the Park events around the country. Participating teams include the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies and Oakland A's. Each game is expected to attract at least 500 four-legged fans. La Russa is the program's official ambassador.

"What could be more all-American than baseball and dogs in one place?" he says. "It's about bringing people together who obviously care about their animals, and the world will see what the human-animal bond is all about."

This summer, baseball will once again go to the dogs.

"That's good!" says La Russa.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

(c) 2014 DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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