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Tony La Russa strolled incognito into Ogren-Allegiance Park two weeks ago, dressed more like a fan than the man behind many of the big decisions for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It's been two years since the D-backs' chief baseball officer was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Six since he earned the last of three World Series rings as a manager, guiding the St. Louis Cardinals to a second crown.

La Russa looks much younger than his age (71). He shares that characteristic with the man he relied on to manage his Rookie league team the past two seasons, Missoula Osprey skipper Joe Mather.

Mather earned La Russa's respect last summer by guiding the Osprey to a Pioneer League championship. This summer was less noteworthy, but La Russa believes he's got a keeper.

"He was with us in St. Louis," Tony said of Joe's stints as a player with the Cardinals. "The first time I ever watched him taking batting practice, I thought, 'Holy smokes.' They told me what a good player he was.

"He had a good head for baseball and if he'd a had better health, he would've had a really good big-league career. As it was, we brought him up to the big leagues a couple times. But his back bothered him."

Tony wasn't the only La Russa that had an eye on Mather 10 years ago.

"Our daughters were not married and they both fell in love with Joe," Tony offered with a chuckle. "He had the long hair you know ... But he's a gentleman, great baseball knowledge.

"He was a real leader as a teammate and that's what you're looking for once you get out of the uniform as a player. That leadership translates well into coaching and managing."

As beat writer for the Osprey, I've had the chance to work with the 34-year-old Mather through the best of times and some tough times. Never have I been more impressed with a young leader's class, nor more sorry to see a season end, knowing 2016 might have been Joe's last year in Missoula.

Osprey players come and go like college students floating the Clark Fork River in August. Mather's situation was different because he was in Missoula two full seasons.

Popular among his players and Osprey fans, it's going to be real interesting to see what the future holds for Joe, especially with La Russa in his corner.

"Hopefully this is the profession I'll have the rest of my life until I'm ready to retire," Mather related. "I get a lot of joy from managing, trying to help young kids get to the big leagues like was my goal. My dad was a coach and managing is a blast. I love it."

Mather will tell you his approach to managing is a hybrid. He catches himself using La Russa phrases and will probably always clap the exact same way his dad did in the third base coach's box.

As role model skippers go, Joe couldn't do much better than La Russa.

Termed "the best manager of all-time" by former protégé Jim Leyland, La Russa tried playing a neutral role as an MLB operations official in 2012 and 2013. Leaving baseball's competitive side just didn't sit well, so Tony took on the challenge of running the Diamondbacks.

Which just goes to show, it's not so easy to run away from who you are, whether you're 50, 60 or even 71.

"The best part is you're back with an organization, you care about winning and dislike losing," he said. "When I worked for MLB I was neutral. It seems unnatural.

"It's a player's game. But one of the advantages is that as a manager you do have a way to tweak what's going right or wrong, make some decisions to help us. It can be pretty frustrating to sit there. You want to pick up the phone but you don't."

Keeping track of Arizona's farm system and visiting places like the Garden City is part of the fun of La Russa's job. He says the Osprey are especially intriguing because they welcome a lot of the "new guys."

"We know they have the talent," La Russa said, "so it's just are they fitting in? Are they relaxing? Are they showing what they can do?"

Soon all that remains of the baseball season will be the MLB playoffs. With the Diamondbacks left out of the mix, La Russa will do like the rest of us, watching and wondering if, for example, the Chicago Cubs can end 107 years of misery by winning the World Series.

Considering he managed the Cubs' arch-rival for so many years, you'd figure maybe La Russa could care less about the Windy City pinstripers. To the contrary, he's as interested as the next fan.

"It's very similar to Boston," La Russa offered. "Boston was 86 years (between World Series titles). That's a great franchise. We played them twice, 1988 and 1990, and we beat them. You could see the heartbreak.

"Unfortunately we were there, the team they beat to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. It should have happened long ago, just like the Cubs. They've had loyalty, they've had a great franchise. And they're really good."

Sort of like that Hall-of-Famer who has his sights set on a fourth World Series ring, this time as the big boss for the Diamondbacks.

Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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