Early July, 1978. Hot Chicago day.
I was sitting in the visiting dugout at old Comiskey Park with Don Zimmer and Walt Hriniak. We were talking baseball, of course, and - get this - mortgages. Zim had just finished paying off his St. Petersburg house while Walt and I had eons to go with ours.
As we talked, a young White Sox coach, just up from managing in the minors, was on the field, practicing the tricky art of launching the straight-up pop fly coaches would hit for the catcher at the conclusion of that now sorely missed activity - infield practice.
It was the first week of his White Sox coaching career and he was less than a year away from his first big-league managerial job.
So you can kinda say we knew Tony La Russa when.
La Russa certainly fit the classic profile of a successful player turned manager, playing for 12 minor league clubs, good for 1,295 games, to go with a 132-game big-league utility infielder’s career that finished with him hitting a point under the Mendoza Line, with no home runs and seven runs batted in.
Playing the game will not get him into the Hall of Fame. That’s clear. But managing will. The Cooperstown clock began ticking yesterday when La Russa announced that he is retiring after 33 years, three world titles, and 2,728 regular-season victories, the last 1,408 of which have come as skipper of the Cardinals.
The fact is that statistical achievements can be exceeded. The mark of a truly special player, administrator, or manager is doing something that leaves either a lasting memory or special imprint on the game.
Babe Ruth, for example, is no longer the home run leader, either regular season or career, but he always will be the Home Run King. He, and he alone, established the primacy of the long ball, changing the game forever. Branch Rickey invented the farm system, and no one can imagine baseball without it. And Tony La Russa likewise changed baseball, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.
He did so in 1988, 10 years into his big league managing career, by redefining the concept of the closer. He took a fading starter named Dennis Eckersley, made him his short reliever - the term “closer’’ not yet in full usage - and decreed that the only circumstance in which he would be used was when the A’s were leading and there were only three outs to go. Period.
In so doing, he a) put The Eck on a path to Cooperstown, and b) re-wrote The Book Of Managing. If a big-league manager deviates from the manual it becomes instant news. They all employ their closer in this manner. The rare times when the rule is violated are almost exclusively limited to postseason play.
Beyond that, La Russa micro-managed the pitching aspect of the game in an unprecedented manner. He made a personal science out of matchups, thinking farther ahead (according to the folklore, anyway) than any of his foes. He became an orchestrator of five, six, or seven-pitcher shutouts. He became the father of the 3 1/2-hour nine-inning game.
Far too many of his imitators lacked his acumen. Their laughable attempts to copy the master led to what I jokingly began to call the Creeping La Russaization of baseball. I believe you can argue that few men in the history of baseball (I might give you John McGraw) have exerted such influence over the actual conduct of the game, and none, for sure, have worked in the post-McGraw (he retired in 1932) era.
He was the subject of one book, Buzz Bissinger’s “Three Nights in August,’’ and a primary figure in another, George Will’s “Men At Work,’’ published in 1990. It was thanks to the effusive praise lavished on him by Mr. Will that he has been derisively called “The Genius’’ by his critics for the past 22 seasons.
Bissinger’s 2005 book burnished La Russa’s legend, and both men have been vindicated by the Cardinals’ World Series triumphs in 2006 and this past season, because in neither instance was St. Louis expected to win. What the Cardinals just have done, in fact, will go down as La Russa’s greatest triumph.
Now many will argue that when the day comes for La Russa’s Hall of Fame induction, Dave Duncan should be alongside him. There might even be pressure to have Duncan’s name mentioned on La Russa’s plaque, so prominent has his pitching coach of the last 25 years been in the establishment of the La Russa legend. The obvious solution, of course, is to vote Duncan into the Hall as the greatest pitching coach of all-time. But that’s a story for another day.
There are no “geniuses’’ in sports, and that includes Tony La Russa. The record shows that he has been swept twice as often in the World Series as he has swept someone else. The A’s should have won in 1988 (4-1, Dodgers) and 1990 (4-0, Reds). The Cardinals had a major league leading 105 wins when they were swept by the Red Sox in 2004. All of his vaunted brain cells weren’t able to save his teams from disgrace in any of those instances.
But he was an undeniably great manager, one of only two men (the other Sparky Anderson) to win World Series titles in each league. He is behind only Connie Mack on the all-time games managed list and he trails only Mack and McGraw on the victory list.
La Russa has one real problem, and it may bother some voters when the new Expansion Era Committee considers his candidacy in December of 2013. His Oakland and St. Louis managerial careers are stained by steroids implications. He was the manager when Jose Canseco says both he and Mark McGwire were using them, and he was the manager when McGwire eviscerated the record for home runs in a season. Far from distancing himself from McGwire, he hired him to be the Cardinals’ batting coach in 2010. His basic response to the steroids allegations has been a See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil approach. It is conceivable he will live to regret it.
Tony La Russa was a great manager, but we all pay the price for his particular, dare we say it, genius. What was once Creeping LaRussaization is now at a full gallop. One man changed the game. Amazing.