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Big names highlight Tony La Russa’s charity event for animals

Tony La Russa (right) poses for a photo with Oliver Badgio (left) and Jeff Mastro (center) of Steak 44. The restaurant owners held La Russa's "Championship Dinner" on Tuesday night, which benefits La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation. (Photo by Andrew Bell/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — The Oscars might have taken place last Sunday, but there was a different red carpet laid out Tuesday night in Phoenix.

With some of the more notable names in sports from around the country and the Valley, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa hosted his “Dinner of Champions” in Phoenix, with hopes of raising money and awareness for a good cause.

Founded in 1993 after La Russa saved a stray cat in the middle of a game at the Oakland Coliseum, La Russa founded the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), a non-profit organization that works to keep animals and pets out of harm’s way in public pounds.

Not only does the program cater to animals, but it has partnered with veterans and people with traumatic brain injuries to come together and try and help with service-related issues to create a happy and healthy lifestyle after the action on the battlefield has ceased.

“We have a great cause, and in this case, it’s bringing our dogs with veterans who have PTSD,” La Russa said. “We know we have something special with this program. … The more money we raise, the more we do.”

Steak 44 in Phoenix hosted the gathering Tuesday night, with Jeff and Mike Mastro providing the restaurant food and accommodations, and among the athletes in attendance were Hall of Famers Jim Thome, George Brett, and current Arizona Cardinals coach Steve Wilks, along with many more prestigious and current athletes.

As for one of those current athletes, Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Liam Hendriks was present at the event, and he felt particularly strong about the cause at hand.

Hendriks has six pets, with three teacup Chihuahuas and three cats, with what Hendriks labeled as his “newest acquisition” coming this offseason when he took in a displaced cat from Hurricane Irma.

Hendriks said that all of the animals get along, but there has been a little extra care dumped off on his mother-in-law, who is currently taking care of one of the family’s dogs.

Nonetheless, the night served as an important one for Hendriks and his wife, Kristi, and it was just one more way that the A’s right-handed reliever has given back to the community, working with numerous non-profit organizations throughout the Bay Area and in local communities.

“It’s nice with the fact that it’s just a guy who has played before and is going out and has the same cause and the same likes that I do,” Hendriks said of La Russa’s event. “It’s really cool and it’s nice knowing that there is a lot of people out there that don’t take animals as seriously, and there’s a tiny group that does, and I am just happy to be a part of it.”

With La Russa having past roots in the Bay Area and with the Athletics, he constructed and set up a 37,700 square foot ARF animal shelter in Walnut Creek in 2003, and Hendriks has helped him with events in the area in recent years.

The night was lauded as a success, with La Russa happy to once again be able to give back in his own special way, one learned in part throughout his career.

“I think giving back to the community is what I learned in the organizations I worked, with the White Sox, the A’s and the Cardinals,” La Russa said. “If you get in there and find some way to give back … it’s a very giving community and there are a lot of friends here that are supporting us tonight that are actually involved in a bunch of causes around the area, so it’s a great place.”

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