He says he doesn't miss the baseball side yet, that he's ready for life on special assignment with Major League Baseball in some capacity. Yet as he talked with reporters in Tigers manager Jim Leyland's office, he was still enjoying the baseball part.
La Russa had become known in recent years for having celebrities coming in and out as guests during his camps. This time, he's the celebrity, checking in on his friend.
Only this celebrity eventually had to go to work.
"If you want to stay here and deal with these guys, that's fine," Leyland told La Russa, pulling away from his media session for meeting. "If you want to come over to our meeting, it's fine. If you don't have your butt over there on time, don't come back."
La Russa and Leyland have had been close enough to trade barbs with each other for some time, and they were in rare form Tuesday, more than a half-century of Major League managerial experience sitting in the same office. They were each other's closest confidantes in the game for years, and they've served on the same MLB committee together to brainstorm rules changes.
When Leyland seemed burned out on managing after a bad 1999 season in Colorado, it was a Spring Training role and special assistant's job with La Russa and the Cardinals that got him back in. Without that, he said, he might not be managing now.
"That's really what got my juices going again," Leyland said.
The roles here are reversed, except that La Russa is looking at a different side of the game. He was at Leyland's side for much of Tuesday's workout, watching, talking. Once the workouts ended, he headed upstairs to join team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who extended the invitation to La Russa to come here.
He joked that he wanted to be as tough on Leyland now as he was on La Russa then.
"I've got one goal: To have him stop smoking, and to eat tofu," La Russa said.
Quipped Leyland: "I didn't start smoking until I started coaching for him."
Leyland and La Russa are close enough that they're honest with each other. If Leyland thought this was a mistake, he'd be saying it. But Leyland, who takes over from La Russa as MLB's winningest active manager, understands. Leyland had a six-year hiatus between managerial jobs; La Russa went from playing directly into coaching and managing and hasn't looked back.
"I was kind of surprised, really, when we were walking out [to the fields] together," Leyland said afterward. "I asked him if it felt strange not being in uniform, and he said not as much as he thought it might. I think he's ready for another chapter. I don't think there's any question about that."
La Russa has worked with plenty of legendary general managers. His first managerial job in the White Sox farm system had him reporting at one point to Dombrowski, who was a farm director shortly out of college, and the great Roland Hemond. When La Russa won a World Series with the A's, his GM was Sandy Alderson. His 2006 title in St. Louis came under Walt Jocketty.
He didn't want to be a distraction this spring, which he likely would've been with the Cardinals. His ties with Dombrowski brought him here.
"I was so excited about doing this part of it," La Russa said. "You know, you don't have any idea about what goes on upstairs [when you're managing]. You think you know what guys do, what their titles are. But I'm excited to find out how an organization runs off the field."
La Russa said he will not be replacing Joe Torre, who served as Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations before stepping down this offseason to join a prospective Dodgers ownership group.
"I've talked to the Commissioner about doing some things for MLB," La Russa said Tuesday morning, "but not that job. I mean, I'm not sure exactly how official [it is] and when it'll be announced, but we have talked. And at some point, they'll release something or say something."
La Russa will spend about two weeks in camp with the Tigers to learn and ins and outs of front-office work. He'll go to Jupiter, Fla., from there, and then spent part of March in Arizona.
The opportunity to work with Major League Baseball, at this point, is appealing to La Russa. But he still sounded open to working with a club in the front office.
"Fifty years [in baseball], and all I've known of being with a team is winning and losing," he said. "I mean, I understand what MLB needs and what they provide for all of us. I like winning and losing with a team, but I really respect what they do up there. I've learned a lot, especially with that Commissioner's committee I've been on for three years. It's been a really good learning experience from the ownership level, front-office level, what goes on, the issues.
"I definitely don't want to disrespect the MLB opportunity. Whatever the Commissioner wants me to do, I'll do. But it's still mostly about winning and losing."
The roster La Russa gets to watch the next couple weeks has him thinking about winning.
When Miguel Cabrera stopped in to say hello and shake La Russa's hand, La Russa turned to Leyland with mock surprise.
"Is he on your team, too?" La Russa asked.
"You're not the only guy who had a Pujols," Leyland answered.