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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

A meeting of the minds

Belichick hits it off with La Russa

NEW YORK -- I was shelling peanuts and hardly paying attention as Tony La Russa delivered a rambling answer to a pregame question regarding the expanded format of today's baseball playoffs.

``You know, the first year I was part of one was in 1983," stated the Cardinals manager. ``That was a real short series. Best-three-out-of-five to get to the World Series. That's the way it was. And now three-out-of-five gets you to this; four-out-of-seven, you know what I mean? It gets tougher. But, I don't know . . . It is what it is."

Whoa. It is what it is. That got my attention. Brought me back to Gillette Stadium. It is what it is is the ultimate Bill Belichick phrase. When Belichick is rightfully honored with his image on a silver dollar, It is what it is will replace E Pluribus Unum. It is the mantra of the Church of Belichick. It explains everything and it explains nothing (try it out on your wife or boss next time you're in trouble), which makes it the perfect Belichick answer.

So now we know the Cardinals manager and the Patriots coach truly are a two-man admiration society. We are in the middle of the baseball playoffs and Tony La Russa is speaking the language of Bill.

Belichick was La Russa's guest for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series last night, a 2-0 Cardinals' loss to the New York Mets. Standing behind the batting cage, the two gods of game-calling talked for a solid hour while the Cardinals took batting practice. Had they been joined by pompous Phil Jackson, we'd have had a sports Yalta -- the greatest collection of coaching geniuses ever assembled -- with the obvious exception of anyplace Red Auerbach ever went.

This Belichick-La Russa bond is a friendship rooted in Belichick's insatiable intellectual curiosity. Your coach simply wants to know a lot about everything. It is one of the things that make him so good at what he does. Belichick, you might remember, once arranged to watch a surgery just so he could better understand the O.R. process (doubt he carried any Junior Mints into the operating room). He also went to prison -- as an observer -- to find out what it's like on the inside. Jon Bon Jovi has introduced Belichick to the world of rock 'n' roll, and last winter Coach Bill hung out with Pat Riley when the Heat came to Boston.

Belichick acknowledges knowing little about baseball. So he asks questions. He listens and learns. From the best. It is Belichick's way. He doesn't want to wear the fancy watch as much as he wants to discover what makes the Rolex tick.

Belichick wore a La Russa jersey to his press conference Tuesday at Gillette Stadium. He looked like one of those 54-year-old goobers you see wearing Curt Schilling shirts to Fenway. Made me wonder if Bill sent Tony his Patriots work garb. Wouldn't it be great to see La Russa calling pitches from the third base dugout in a gray monk-style hoodie?

Belichick told Patriots beat reporters he planned to make a trip to Shea (which once was the home office of the HC of the NYJ). Yesterday, he flew out of Norwood in midafternoon and got to the ballpark in plenty of time to rap with Tony and watch Albert Pujols launch some batting practice bombs.

Belichick on La Russa: ``I'm a Tony La Russa fan. Tony is a great leader and manager, tactician . . . Just the way he handles the team . . . He's into baseball like I'm into football."

La Russa on Belichick: ``I met him in person the first time this year in the spring. I was introduced to him by Buzz Bissinger [who wrote `3 Nights in August' with La Russa]. They were in high school together. Met him over the phone, had nice conversations. He was so down-to-earth. This is a Super Bowl champion. I was interested in what he was doing. He was very forthcoming and he would ask questions about our sport and he said, `I'd like to visit.'

``He came to spring training. He wanted to know, you know, `How you guys do this, you guys do that?' Just comparing. We went to dinner twice. It was just a great experience. And the other day he called and he said, `We've got a bye week and if you guys get in and it's the Mets, I think I'll be there.' "

The Patriots coach gave up baseball for lacrosse at an early age. He's got square eyes from watching so much football film, which leaves little time for baseball viewing.

``I really don't understand it that well," he said after his hour with the Cardinals hardball master. ``I was in the dugout with him in spring training and I couldn't believe how much was involved. He calls every pitch. Every pitch! He's involved with the pitcher stepping off the rubber and moving guys in the outfield, figuring out whether they're going to steal, whether they're going to squeeze. It was fascinating."

So, who has more control over the way a game unfolds. A football coach or a baseball manager?

``I'd say he has way more," said Belichick. ``We call every play, but we have 11 guys moving on that play. He's controlling every single guy. It was amazing."

And the preparation? No one loves preparation more than Bill.

``Tony and I were talking about that. He's got to know all 25 guys, both teams. Who they're going to bring in, how to pitch to this guy. We change every game and start with a team we don't know. They play six or seven games against the same team."

And if Tony shows up in Foxborough, Mass., a couple of hours before the Patriots kick off in a playoff game against the Broncos, would Coach Bill have an hour to spare for his new best friend?

``Sure," said Coach Bill. ``The preparation's all done by then."

Whatever you say, Coach. I mean . . . it is what it is.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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