Tuesday, November 1, 2011

One of the Best is Gone

With Tony La Russa’s retirement after 16 seasons with the Cardinals a golden age of managers is nearing an end. Only Tiger skipper Jim Leyland, a friend of La Russa, is left of a group of extremely successful modern-day managers. In the past year La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre, who rank 3, 4, and 5 in all time in wins by a manager, have each retired gracefully.

For the record, Cornelius McGillicuddy (you may know him better as Connie Mack) had the most wins (3,731) in baseball history, but his record is tainted by the fact that he lost a lot more (3,948) – for a .486 record. John McGraw, who won just 35 more times than La Russa, had a winning percentage an even hundred points better than that. McGraw’s .586 trails only Joe McCarthy’s amazing .615, but keep in mind that in McCarthy’s first thirteen years with the Yankees they finished first or second in the AL twelve times.

LaRussa should easily make it into the Hall of Fame. So too should Bobby Cox, whose best-ever 16 playoff appearances is marred only by the fact that he won only one World Series, and Joe Torre, who went to the postseason 15 times, won six pennants, and four World Series.

As for Jim Leyland, who has 1,588 wins and sits in 18th place, he has only three more wins than losses, but he had the misfortune to continue managing the Pirates after they jettisoned their big salaries and he also led the '98 Marlins to an impressive .333 record.

La Russa managed teams to twelve first-place finishes and six pennants, going to the World Series in three straight years with the A’s from 1988 to ’90. He also lost in the Series with the Cardinals in 2004. He often appeared tight-lipped at his post game news conferences, but behind the scenes he showed a sense of humor, often poking fun at his .199 career big league average in a playing career that consisted of 176 at bats over 11 years as a utility infielder.

La Russa has changed the way baseball is played through his use of a number of unusual strategies. He started games with his pitcher batting eighth 432 times and continually used batter-pitcher matchups to determine which reliever to bring in – which unfortunately made major league games even longer and slower. He was one of the first managers to regularly use a reliever – Dennis Eckersley – for a single inning. Of course Herman Franks used Bruce Sutter as a specialized reliever in the late ’70s and the Yankees used Sparky Lyle that way too – and then Goose Gossage, but La Russa refined the practice, trying to ensure that Eckersley would start the ninth with a clear slate by trotting out a parade of righties and lefties to create matchups.

In 1991 La Russa set a major league record with 397 pitching changes, surpassing the record set by Reds manager Pete Rose four years earlier. Of course it was more remarkable in the AL where the existence of the Designated Hitter in and of itself reduces the need for pitching changes. By 1993, his last in Oakland, La Russa was up to 424 changes.

La Russa was getting a lot out of his hitters too. But not because of a shot in the arm from him – because of a self-injected shot in their butts – of steroids. La Russa claimed not to have known about their use, particularly by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, but a guy as smart as he is must have. Funny thing ... Mark McGwire hit prodigious home runs and made prodigious use of steroids with another team in another league three years later. Now let me think, who managed that team – the ’96 Cards? Oh ya, that was La Russa again.

So Hall of Fame, yes. La Russa was one of the most intelligent, involved, innovative, competitive, and successful managers of all time and he deserves to be there. But his lengthening of games and his acceptance of steroids loses him quite a few points with me.


Larry Toman said...

Thanks Will, great read.I agree Tony turned a blind eye to juicing,and that doesn't sit well we me either. No one was going to blow the whistle during that era. It should be interesting to see if the Cards can keep Sir Albert, now that his good friend La Russa is gone. Let's hope so. Cheers!

Rick Blechta said...

I think this off-season is going to prove very interesting for real baseball fans.

And by the way, the Hot Stove portion of Late Innings is now in operation. More on this topic with my Saturday posting.

John the Tomahawk Trembath said...

It sure is nice to go out on top. Tony La Russa sure has had the luck of the draw according to Will. With all the juiced players filling in the offensive needs of the team to championships. It appears that most of the players used steroids to some extent. Cardinal 2011 hitting coach Mark McGwire certainly did. Can any of these guys ever get into the HOF? Can La Russa get in the Hall based on his "knowledge" of who used?

If so it seems a bit not just unfair but two faced. The Bug never did his part to stop the use. Bug wanted the big bats and records broken. Players wanted to be able to compete. MLB responded to little too late.

Now, forever, the tainted records will always cast a shadow over anyone from that time. I think it is time to forget it, put it away and never mention it again unless MLB can not keep it’s house in order. Can we please stop the self-righteous indignation? We were not there at the beginning of this on the field, in the clubhouse nor in the broadcast booth. We can not know of the pressures this brought young players to excel. I hope the next MLB Commissioner is smarter and has the love of the game inside himself. Too many careers have been destroyed already. Boo on Bug.