The easiest thing to do when examining a manager’s—or anyone’s—record is to look at the numbers.
Tony LaRussa‘s managerial numbers are up in the stratosphere of baseball history and will be there forever.
He managed for 33 years; made the playoffs 14 times; won 6 pennants; and 3 World Series.
He won 2728 games and had a .536 winning percentage.
But that doesn’t explain what it was he accomplished in baseball.
LaRussa was one of the true innovators, using data and in-depth scouting reports to adjust his lineups, fielder’s positions and pitching maneuvers according to what would best enable him to have an advantage and win the game. Before stats became so prevalent that laymen thought their utilization made them a baseball expert, LaRussa epitomized the best of both stat-based/detailed information decisionmaking and old-school baseball instincts.
Being a journeyman infielder who batted .199 in 203 career plate appearances in the big leagues and lasted for 15 years in the minors (he had a few good minor league seasons), he soaked up the knowledge that contributed to his innovations as a manager; his legal training (he graduated from law school) provided a linear method of thinking that he adapted to baseball; and he had the courage of his convictions.
There were no, “I’m doing this to keep my job” moves with LaRussa. Immediately upon getting the White Sox job, the likes of Billy Martin and Sparky Anderson—baseball lifers and great managers—noticed and were impressed with his fearlessness and attention to detail.
Blamed for the advent of the “bullpen roles” with the Athletics and Dennis Eckersley, that too was an example of coldblooded rationality rather than reinventing the game. In his early seasons managing the White Sox, LaRussa used his short relievers for multiple innings just as every other manager did; it was when he got to Oakland and the veteran former starter Eckersley was making the transition to the bullpen that LaRussa decided it was best to use him for only one inning at a time. He had the other relievers in his bullpen to do it and it worked.
No one told the rest of baseball that this new strategy was the template of how to run a club without deviation—that was never the point—they were copying while LaRussa was creating.
The stat people cling to the concept of a bullpen-by-committee. This can only succeed, in part, if there’s a manager who can’t be questioned if he decides to use it—the 2011 Cardinals used the closer-by-committee with eight different pitchers recording saves.
Planning hand-in-hand with his pitching coach/aide-de-camp Dave Duncan and his GMs Sandy Alderson, Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak to find players who fit into what he wanted to build, he rejuvenated and saved the careers of dozens of players. Without LaRussa and Duncan, there’s no Dave Stewart; Mike Moore would’ve been a “what might have been” disappointment; Chris Carpenter would’ve been a journeyman bust; and Eckersley would’ve been finished at 33.
Rightful in his indignation at his portrayal in Moneyball as a “middle-manager” who wasn’t supposed to have his opinions granted any weight, he won and won and won and did it under a budget—his Cardinals teams were generally in the top 10 in payroll, but never competed financially with the Yankees and Red Sox.
Moneyball became the bane of his existence long after its publication as his longtime Cardinals GM Jocketty was forced out as the club mitigated the power of both LaRussa and Duncan and tried to use numbers and baseball outsiders to save money and restructure the organizational philosophy. LaRussa rebelled. Competing in the big leagues is hard enough without having one’s experience and strategies questioned by outsiders who think that calculating a formula can replace 40 years of analytical observation and in-the-trenches baseball.
He fought back viciously and eventually won that organizational tug-of-war.
He didn’t have much patience for young players who didn’t catch on quickly; his doghouse was entrance only and his feuds with players like Scott Rolen bordered on the embarrassing; he could be condescending, thin-skinned and Machiavellian; he overmanaged in circumstances where he shouldn’t have; he was a skillful manipulator of organizational politics to maintain influence; and his teams didn’t win as much as they should have judging by their talent.
But when a team hired Tony LaRussa to manage, they would never be outworked and if he was given the players to compete, he’d get them to the playoffs. Sometimes he got them to the playoffs when he wasn’t given the players to compete.
In an interesting footnote, the championship teams—the 1989 Athletics; 2006 Cardinals; 2011 Cardinals—weren’t anywhere near as good as the teams that got bounced in the playoffs or shocked in the World Series. The 1988 and 1990 A’s were better than the 1989 team; the 2004-2005 Cardinals won a total of 205 games, but those teams didn’t take the title.
The 2006 club collapsed in September and nearly missed the playoffs; once they got in, they regained their footing and, carried by a journeyman starter Jeff Suppan and a rookie closer (who wasn’t a closer) Adam Wainwright, they were the underdogs in every post-season series and won them all.
In 2011, the Cardinals were all but finished in late August before getting a reprieve because they had a great September and due to the Braves falling apart. Seemingly overmatched by the mighty Phillies and the pitching-rich Brewers, the Cardinals took both out. Then, down to their last strike twice in the World Series to the superior Rangers, the Cardinals came back and won an unlikely championship.
I have to wonder whether LaRussa takes more pride in winning when he wasn’t supposed to win or wanted to win with the teams that were great in every conceivable metric other than taking home the World Series trophy.
One accomplishment lends itself to his managerial skill; the other to his ability to put a club together over a long year from the winter to the fall. Neither is more important than the other, but more credit is doled for winning when a team isn’t supposed to win.
LaRussa got away with the things he did because he won and in a circular occurrence, he won because he had the nerve to do things that other young managers might not have done. He didn’t do them to be quirky; he did them because he believed in them. As much as he tried to keep his thumb on everything in his world, he was a big picture, deep strike thinker who took risks for big rewards.
Not every manager can say that.
Most new managers are going to make calls that are safe; that can be explained to the media and meddling bosses; that will keep the players in their corner—but not LaRussa.
He was a rarity among mangers for that fervent adherence to his theories and the courage to implement them.
There won’t be another LaRussa not only because he won, but because of the way he won.
He went out on top and walked away from a lot of money.
There have been intermittent and idiotic caveats from know-nothings diminishing all he did in baseball.
They need to be ignored.
LaRussa deserves to be applauded for his dedication to the game and a career that won’t be surpassed in its duration and scope.
He’s one of the best managers in the history of baseball.
LaRussa’s retiring on his own terms and he’s going out as a World Series champion.
It fits the story of his managerial career perfectly.