Turning points often come at the most unexpected moments in
people's lives. For St. Louis Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, a
turning point occurred during a Monday-night ball game in May
1990, while he was managing the Oakland A's.
As La Russa's team played the New York Yankees, a cat ran onto
the field at Oakland Coliseum, bringing the game to a halt. The
animal frantically sprinted around the perimeter of the field,
trying to escape. As La Russa stepped out of the A's dugout, the
cat stopped at his feet. Gently, he nudged the creature into the
clubhouse. "I named her Evie, after the wife of the late A's
owner Walter Haas, and my life hasn't been the same since," says
The next day he put the cat in an animal shelter near his home.
"The shelter was overwhelmed with animals," recalls La Russa. He
later learned that Evie was scheduled to be put to sleep. After
several phone calls, he found temporary housing for the cat.
"That's when my wife, Elaine, and I decided there must be
something we could do to help other Evies," he says.
Nine months later, the couple started Tony La Russa's Animal
Rescue Foundation (ARF), a nonprofit organization based in
Concord, Calif., that's devoted to bringing people and homeless
dogs and cats together. One of its first successes was finding a
permanent home for Evie.
Unlike the area's public shelters, ARF does not euthanatize
unwanted animals. "Tony insisted that ARF be a no-kill
operation," says Kathy McCracken, the group's development
director. "We find a home for every animal we get." Last year
ARF placed more than 1,000 cats and dogs. It also provided
low-income county residents with free animal-neutering services
and with funds to pay emergency veterinary bills, and it gave
away more than 12 tons of food to the pets of needy families.
Between the end of baseball season and the beginning of spring
training in February, La Russa is at the organization's offices
almost every day. "He does everything from fund-raising to
moving office furniture," says ARF executive director Robert N.
Anderson. "He's very committed." The group's modest headquarters
are located in a nondescript strip mall on one of the main drags
in Concord, but the site is too small to house animals. La Russa
is raising funds to build a $7 million shelter on six acres in
nearby Walnut Creek.
ARF's animals are housed temporarily in any of about 100 foster
homes throughout the county. "Talk about superstars, these
volunteers are the heart and soul of ARF," says La Russa. Every
weekend at a Concord pet store, ARF offers dogs and cats for
adoption. "I'm constantly asked why we focus on animals when
there are so many people problems in the world," says La Russa.
"But part of ARF's mission is to demonstrate how pets help
Last year ARF volunteers conducted more than 150 pet-assisted
therapy sessions at children's hospitals, mental-health
facilities and homes for seniors. "This kind of therapy is based
on research that shows how interaction with animals can lower a
person's blood pressure and decrease feelings of isolation and
depression," says McCracken, a psychotherapist by training.
La Russa has long had an affinity for animals. "As a kid I
desperately wanted to have pets, but my mother was once attacked
by a dog," he says. "She was terrified of all animals, so we
lived without them." In the years since, the three-time American
League Manager of the Year has made up for lost time by bringing
home strays. Today, he and his family share their Bay Area house
with 10 cats and two dogs.
Before Evie died, in 1995 at the age of 15, she lived with Diana
Gale, a schoolteacher in Contra Costa County. "Being at Oakland
Coliseum left an impression on Evie," says Gale. "When she would
hear the noise of a televised ball game, she would sit up and
stare intently at my TV screen."
Perhaps Evie, like the man who rescued her, had baseball in her
Mark Wexler lives in Washington, D.C., where he met his cat,
Pearl, at an animal shelter.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS When he's not in uniform, La Russa can be found smooching pooches and hosting fund-raisers for ARF. [Tony La Russa kissing puppy]