In the End, It’s Always About La Russa

(published October 26, 2011)

Another rainy day in October, another postseason game delayed, an extra day to spend bashing Tony La Russa.

There are three things that most men believe they can do as well or better than anyone alive: build a fire, drive a car, and manage a major-league baseball team.

TLR has spent 33 seasons disabusing the general population of the notion that they could possibly match the intellect and dedication he brings to the task he performs daily.  The population inside baseball, too.

Give the man his due.  He has scaled all the conceivable mountains in his profession.  In 2010, he passed longtime New York Giants skipper John McGraw for second place in games managed, and if he returns next season he’ll top McGraw in wins as well.

First place, where Connie Mack sits, is out of the question; Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 53 years, aided by the fact that he owned the team.  La Russa is more than 2500 games, 1000 wins, and 20 seasons behind the Tall Tactician.

He trails him by an inch in height, which tells you that tall is a lot taller than it used to be.

Still, thirty-three years of managing, and he has been fired once, from the Chicago White Sox in 1986.  Fired by Hawk Harrelson, which is practically a badge of honor.

Twelve days later, he was managing again, in Oakland.

Managers come and managers go, taking the blame for whatever goes wrong, walking the plank when the front office wants to change the atmosphere.  Yet La Russa has eluded that moving finger, escaping blame even when blame might have been merited, as when his Oakland team plunged from first to last in the 1990s.

Charlie Dressen, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s, was legendary for telling his players, “Just hold it close, I’ll think of something.”  He was widely mocked for this certainty that he could outsmart the game.

La Russa not only exudes this attitude, he manages with it.

Let lesser thinkers mindlessly follow the baseball tradition of batting the pitcher ninth.  TLR has looked deeper, deeper than you could ever hope to, and concluded that by putting him eighth, the improved ninth hitter will result in more runners on base when Albert Pujols bats.  (And never mind the rallies that end sooner because of the pitcher batting with Pujols or Holliday on base.)

Over the last two seasons, the Cardinals have scored 4.61 runs per game with the pitcher batting eighth, 4.65 with him batting ninth.  They were 46-43 with him eighth, 127-102 with him ninth.   It’s a small sample, but it certainly doesn’t prove him right.

He didn’t invent the bullpen, but he pioneered the use of multiple pitchers per inning to get the best matchup.  Smarter minds than mine will have to parse the question of whether the more favorable micro-situations are of greater benefit than letting the reliever find his rhythm on the mound.

If a reliever pitches a shutout inning, he’s done his job well.  If three relievers pitch a shutout inning, the manager has done his job well.  Or so it looks.

It is this approach, his seeming insistence on making the game about himself and his maneuvers, that rubs so many observers the wrong way.  He taught America the meaning of the word Schadenfreude this week, as the Texas Phone-Line Massacre turned his finely-tuned machine into a managerial blooper reel.  A pitching staff constructed so he could pull the right strings wound up with the worst possible matchup – a lefthander facing Mike Napoli – because of a supposedly misheard instruction.

Mr. La Russa, here is your petard.  Hoist away.

The bullpen snafu was hardly the only inexplicable decision of the night, and if the Cardinals had gotten more than two runs out of their eighteen plate appearances with runners in scoring position, it wouldn’t have mattered much who came trotting into the game instead of Jason Motte.

Ron Washington hasn’t exactly been invisible – going Hack-a-Shaq on Pujols – but if the Rangers win, the universal perception will be that they won because they have the better team.

In a curious way, though, Monday’s epic series of mistakes may actually serve to validate La Russa’s methods.  If the wrong matchup can cost you a championship, you’d better make sure you’ve got the right one whenever you can, right?

But next time, use your damn iPad instead, ok?














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