La Russa worried about Bell's strike zone

Updated: October 16, 2005, 12:29 AM ET
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

HOUSTON -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sometimes will be direct in his criticisms after controversial plays, but Saturday afternoon, he took the unusual tactic of expressing concern about home plate umpire Wally Bell more than two hours before the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown.

In answering a general question about Roger Clemens, La Russa gave a short answer, and then swerved, bringing up the home plate umpire on his own.

"I have to tell you, my biggest concern -- not my biggest concern, but a concern -- is the home plate umpire, Wally Bell," said La Russa. "[Clemens] has so much command, he's like [Greg] Maddux, he's going to pitch on the edges. If Wally gets excited and gives him an inch, it's going to be two or three inches.

"(Clemens) is tough enough to hit when it's over the plate and if he starts getting a big plate, that's going to be tough for us. I know in our ballpark, both Tim [McClelland] and Greg [Gibson], and I think Wally will, too, will call a good game and not get excited about the home crowd. You always worry when a guy has good command that he can get somebody excited."

A spokesperson for Major League Baseball issued a 'No comment' on behalf of Bell during the game, before Bell was asked to respond. After the game, Clemens smiled slightly when asked about La Russa's statement. "I'm going to pass on that [question]," Clemens said. "These guys [the umpires] do a good job on that."

It's extremely rare that a manager will express concern about a home plate umpire's work after a game, and this might be the first time in recent memory that a manager talked about an umpire, by name, and his interpretation of the strike zone. It could be that La Russa, one of the most successful managers in history, may have wanted to plant a seed about calls before a game, in the same way that Houston Rockets basketball coach Jeff Van Gundy often questions the officiating during the postseason.

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Astros left-hander Andy Pettitte ran around the Minute Maid Park outfield like he was preparing for a track meet, sprinting back and forth, running down fly balls, running up the hill in center field one time. His right knee, injured when he was hit by a batting practice line drive before Game 1 of this series Wednesday, is feeling much better, Pettitte said.

The swelling that hampered his ability to bend his right knee during Game 1 has dissipated, he said. "It's spreading out nice, through my hamstring," he said.

Pettitte was hit by a ball batted by Roy Oswalt while running the bases, and before the game, Houston general manager Tim Purpura said Pettitte's knee was swollen "to the size of a grapefruit." He was given multiple injections in an effort to reduce the pain and the swelling, but Pettitte never looked comfortable, posting his worst start since June 14, allowing five runs in six innings.

He will start Game 5, and Pettitte figures that on Monday, he won't run the bases during batting practice -- something that only he and Roger Clemens, among the Houston pitchers, do as a matter of routine. "I guess I won't do it, because they might have a breakdown if I did do it."

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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