Tony La Russa changed the game and now he leaves it on top
The most important manager of his generation left on his own terms. There were no naps in the dugout, no breakdowns of trust with upper management, no ugly seasons of too many losses to stain a legacy. Tony La Russa, at the age of 67, with 5,097 regular season games of experience in the dugout over 33 seasons, went out with a world championship that solidified his legacy as one of the few icons who brought change to the game.
With La Russa's retirement on Monday after 16 seasons with the Cardinals, a golden age of managers has closed but for the remaining years of his friend, Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. In the past 12 months, La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre all retired on their own terms -- the men who rank 3-4-5 all time in wins by managers and represent a time, before general managers became stars, when the power balance of a club remained as much in the dugout as it did the board room.
All of them -- La Russa, Cox and Torre -- will go on the December 2013 Expansion Era Committee Ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame's 2014 induction ceremonies. Former Braves and Royals GM John Schuerholz also is expected to be on that ballot, which figures to leave little room for anyone else and make for a crowded ceremony in Cooperstown in July 2014. (The 16 committee members can name up to five candidates on their ballot.)
Cox represents the consistency of place and success, hanging 14 divisional championships in Atlanta and a record 16 playoff appearances overall, though he could squeeze just one world championship out of his run. Torre was the zen master of October, winning six pennants and four World Series with the Yankees and making 15 trips overall to the postseason, including one ridiculous stretch in which he tamed the randomness of postseason baseball by going 14-2 in postseason series while playing .768 baseball under the greatest pressure against the best teams (53-16).
But La Russa did something few managers have done in this game: He changed how it was played. He inserted himself so forcefully into running a game that his impact was known as if he were a star player. His greatest tool to apply that force -- to try to control the conditions of a game as much as he could -- was his bullpen usage.
La Russa didn't exactly invent the specialized bullpen. You can go back to guys like then-Cubs manager Herman Franks turning Bruce Sutter into a specialized fireman to close games in the late 1970s. But by winning with his Oakland teams in the late 1980s, La Russa refined it.
In order to give closer Dennis Eckersley as much of a clean window to close games -- to start the ninth inning with nobody on base -- as he could, La Russa used a parade of lefthanded and righthanded specialists, not to mention sinkerballers and power pitchers, to create matchups in his favor. He would avoid intentional walks or overusing his closer by using as many arms as possible to create matchup advantages.
The joke one of his lefties, Rick Honeycutt, used to tell was that he tried to retire several times. But because of the specialized bullpen system La Russa popularized -- with Honeycutt a big part of it -- the game wouldn't let Honeycutt quit. Each year somebody would give him a million dollars or two to pitch about 40 innings. The work was too good to turn down.
La Russa's 1989 championship with Oakland solidified his place as a manager of historical importance, but that was just the beginning of playing out this approach of trying to control as many matchups as possible.
In 1991, La Russa set a major league record with 397 pitching changes, surpassing the record of 392 set four years earlier by Pete Rose of the Reds. But La Russa did so with Oakland in the American League, a league that because of the designated hitter does not force a pitcher out of the game for a pinch hitter when his team is tied or trailing late. As far as AL baseball, La Russa broke a record that had stood since 1965, when Haywood Sullivan made 378 changes because his Kansas City A's team was so bad it lost 103 games.
By 1993, La Russa's final full season in Oakland, and for a team that lost 94 games, he had pushed the AL record for pitching changes to 424. He had evolved a long way from his first full season as a manager, with the 1980 White Sox, when he made 236 pitching changes. And the game would evolve with him.
It was also in 1993 that La Russa took his quest for controlling games to an extreme even he had to concede was a bad idea. On July 24, he divided his pitchers into three groups. Each pitcher would pitch three innings every third day. La Russa designated two or three other pitchers as specialists who would be available to close games or fill in gaps when a three-inning pitcher came up short in his assignment.
Actually, this was more the idea of pitching coach Dave Duncan, his righthand man, but La Russa endorsed the idea for a team that was struggling. The experiment lasted only five games, in which the Athletics went 1-4. The pitchers didn't like it. The agents didn't like it. (Starting pitchers did not even have the opportunity to qualify for a win.) So La Russa junked it in less than a week's time, which in itself was a smart move. He knew when to pull the plug on an idea.
Those Oakland teams also will be remembered as early adapters in The Steroid Era, and that is another reason why La Russa's importance to the game is huge. He claimed, and still does, to have had little to no knowledge about how his biggest stars, like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, with their bloated bodies and prodigious power, were using steroids. It asks you to suspend belief in how closely a manager gets to his players despite spending nearly every day with them for seven months a year. At the least, it begs the question as to how La Russa could have missed so many signs.
The choice of usage, let's be clear, belonged to the players, not the manager. That is where the responsibility lies. But as the leader of the team, La Russa at least must live with those questions. But that was La Russa, too: fiercely protective of his players.
La Russa loved turning guys like Mike Gallego and Aaron Miles into important pieces -- the super utility player -- and deserves commendation for using his entire roster, not just the bullpen, wisely. But his enabling of star players was another hallmark, from Mark McGwire to Albert Pujols, whom he defended in this year's World Series for his clubhouse no-show after Game 2, saying the media never asked to talk to Pujols, as if someone in baseball for more than 30 years really believes a star player involved in a key World Series game needs to be asked.
The 2011 postseason may stand not just as La Russa's last work, but his best work. La Russa joined Gil Hodges of the 1969 Mets as the only managers to take a team at least 10 games out in August and wind up winning the World Series. He never allowed his team to think the season was lost. And to get them through the postseason he made a record 75 pitching changes.
La Russa was a giant of the game and shall forever be remembered that way, especially by going out this way. There is no decline phase to La Russa's career. It is full of greatness, all the way to the end.