He’s won three pennants, three World Series, won 100 games four times, and is the third-winningest manager in Major League Baseball history, yet Hall of Famer Tony La Russa has enjoyed this Red Sox team as a vice president of baseball operations as much as any of those that he influenced as a manager.
When I asked La Russa how much he’s been able to contribute to this 100-plus-win Red Sox team, he gave a thoughtful and honest answer.
“I would say egotistically, I think a little less than 1 percent. Realistically a little bit above 0 percent. And I’m being realistic,” LaRussa quipped.
He was a longtime friend and confidant to Dave Dombrowski as they began their major league careers together with the Chicago White Sox. They kept their friendship alive over the years and always respected what each had accomplished.
Dombrowski hired La Russa to be an extra set of eyes for him. La Russa spends a lot of time with Dombrowski, both at home and on the road with the team. He’s often seen with Bill Belichick, who has become a close friend.
It was thought La Russa would be a good mentor to Alex Cora, but what La Russa has found is that Cora has his act together like no young manager he’s seen.
La Russa said it might have been a daunting task to get hired to win a World Series in his first year, but Cora has embraced the pressure.
“That situation can be stressful but that’s the most impressive thing about him,” La Russa said. ”I attribute it to his background and experiences as a player but most importantly he played here. Expectations and pressure are not new to him. The crowd and the expectations could be tough to a normal manager, but he’s not normal.”
La Russa has been extremely impressed not only with Cora but the coaching staff and players, as well as the front office. He said wherever he’s been — Chicago, Oakland, St. Louis — he was supported by ownership, which made the job easier. He said he’s seen the same ownership support in Boston.
He’s been able to answer Cora’s questions, and work with the coaches when they ask him things.
La Russa thinks he can help with the mental aspects of dealing with the postseason and how to approach it.
What he’s been most impressed with — and this comes from a strict fundamentalist — is the way the team plays the game.
“I’ve really enjoyed the way they play the game and pitch the game,” La Russa said. “You saw it last weekend against Houston. Both teams put on a clinic with every guy out there trying to play defense . . . every guy who gets on base is trying to run the bases. Everybody who gets an at-bat is trying to do what I need to do instead of being oblivious and swinging from your [rear] three times.”
He loves the way the Red Sox have played in close games.
“Everything has gotten so big. The big punch-out. The big hit. When you play those close games against good teams, it’s really hard to come up big,” said La Russa. “You’ve got to get rallies started and get them in. The Red Sox play the game the right way. The whole game. Houston does it, too. They don’t neglect those pieces you need to win close games.”
La Russa is also a big advocate of separating the regular season and postseason. He acknowledges they are two distinct seasons, believing the mind-set needs to be different in the postseason.
Some conventional wisdom is that you don’t change the way you do things for the postseason, but La Russa feels you must change.
“The regular season is a marathon because you’ve got significant longer-term challenges, your ups and downs, dealing with injuries, and then it’s a totally separate thing when you get to October,” he said. “You play short series and the proven reality is if you’re good enough after the one-game playoff, the eight teams that get in, any of those teams are good enough to be the champion.
“That’s the most exciting part of the playoffs. If you’re the No. 1 seed and you’ve earned it you have a few extra edges. The postseason is so urgent there are some positive frames of minds that you need to emphasize. You have to get your mind right.”
Suffice it to say the Red Sox have not only met La Russa’s expectations but have far surpassed them. Having overseen the entire baseball operations department of the Arizona Diamondbacks as chief baseball officer for a few years, he has an appreciation for the front office and what it does because it’s “really hard work. You work your [rear] off for 12 months and then you’re really helpless as to what happens.”
La Russa knows the frustration of winning big in the regular season but not winning a World Series. The 2004 Cardinals won 105 regular-season games and then got swept by the Red Sox. He still walks by a photo on a wall in the press box at Fenway, in which his 2004 squad is lining up at Fenway for Game 1 of the World Series.
The Cardinals lineup included Edgar Renteria, Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Brian Jordan, Tony Womack, and Mike Matheny. La Russa just shakes his head about being swept with that team.
When he talks about any team being able to win once it makes it to the postseason, he’s likely recalling his own experience when his 2006 Cardinals that won 83 games beat Dombrowski’s Tigers in the World Series (in five games). La Russa also won a championship in 2011, his final season as manager of the Cardinals.
He fondly remembers his 1988-90 Oakland A’s that produced one World Series champion.
He emphasizes the mental aspect as the key in the postseason.
“What’s your best chance of winning 11 postseason games? There are keys that you have to go through and emphasize. I think Alex, with his experience as a champion, and a guy like Jason Varitek can really help in that area,” La Russa said.
Apropos of nothing
1. Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell has likely taken the lead in the American League Cy Young race, which should make for a dilemma for voters. The award was on its way to being close to a slam dunk for Chris Sale before his two stints on the disabled list. Voters like to see low ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts. Sale definitely has two of the three, but lags in innings because of his injuries. Wins could also be a factor but not as much as they used to be, though Snell’s 19 wins and low ERA are a powerful combination. Realistically, besides Snell and Sale, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, and Houston’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are in the mix for the award. In the National League, how can you not vote for the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom? His record is 8-11 because of poor run support, but he has an incredible 1.71 ERA.
2. Crazy that at this late date Orioles ownership has yet to tell either manager Buck Showalter or general manager Dan Duquette if he will be back in 2019.
3. With the possibility of Tampa Bay winning 90 games with the smallest payroll (neck and neck with Oakland), it’s hard for the Players Association to make a case that the Rays, or A’s for that matter, are tanking. The A’s entered the weekend with an 89-58 record. The union wants teams to spend what it considers to be a reasonable amount on payroll, but the Rays and A’s haven’t had to do that to achieve the success they have. The Rays won’t make the playoffs with their small payroll, but the A’s will, and they could even win the AL West title.
4. Many names have been floated for the Mets’ GM job, but one that doesn’t seem to get much consideration is Ruben Amaro Jr., a former Phillies GM who certainly understands the NL East. There are all kinds of scenarios. If Mark Shapiro left Toronto to be president of the Mets, would he hire Ben Cherington as his GM? Amaro has talked to Mets owner Jeff Wilpon about the job.
5. Rich Gedman seems like a natural to become the new Pawtucket Red Sox manager since he hails from Worcester, where he remains popular. Gedman has been the Pawtucket hitting coach. But who knows what the Red Sox will do?
6. The Rookie of the Year in the AL is going to come down to the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Of the three, Andujar, a third baseman, has had an outstanding offensive season with 23 homers and plenty of big hits along the way. He’s likely edged out Torres, a second baseman who also played shortstop while Didi Gregorius was on the disabled list. Ohtani’s two-way play could give him an advantage because he’s excelled as a pitcher and hitter in limited action.
7. One longtime coach feels there are two reasons players are sliding headfirst more and more. First, with a feet-first slide, umpires are calling a runner out if they’re an inch off the bag if they’ve slightly overslid. Second, the new sliding gloves tend to protect the fingers and hands. But here’s an interesting element: In some cases, those sliding pads extend two or three inches beyond the size of a player’s hands, giving them a little extra length to touch the bag.
8. For as much as the analytics have worked for the Rays in terms of using an “opener” as a starter so that the “headliner” doesn’t have to go through a lineup a third time, the Royals have taken a more traditional approach with their young pitchers. That is, to let them pitch. If you haven’t noticed: righthanders Heath Fillmyer (seven or more innings in two of his last three starts), Jorge Lopez (eight and seven innings in his last two starts), Jakob Junis (nine, seven, and eight innings in his last three starts), and Brad Keller (eight, seven, and seven innings in his last three starts). It brings to mind the time Larry Dierker managed the Astros and Frank Robinson happened to notice that Houston starters were pitching deep into games. Robinson asked, “How do you get them to do that?” Dierker responded, “I told them to.” That’s what KC manager Ned Yost is doing
Updates on nine
1. Greg Bird, 1B, Yankees — He has had a poor season at the plate and on defense, particularly for someone who usually excels at both. The only logical explanation is that Bird never fully recovered from the ankle surgery that kept him out most of the season. With the success of Luke Voit, it appears Bird could also be fighting for a spot on the postseason roster. The Yankees will have an interesting decision to make this offseason as to whether they want to commit to Bird long term.
2. Joe Mauer, 1B, Twins — Mauer, in an interesting story in the Minneapolis Tribune, left the door ajar for possibly hanging it up after this season. The three-time AL batting champ and 2009 MVP is at the end of an eight-year, $184 million deal signed when he was a top catcher and one of the best players in baseball. Mauer, 35, expressed that he really doesn’t want to play for anyone else and has acknowledged that his offseason will wind up in a “tough decision.” The Twins would re-sign Mauer for a year if he wanted to return.
3. Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins — He is one of the young Twins who took a turn for the worse in a disappointing 2018. The Twins had high expectations for their team and some of their younger players leaping forward. Sano, hitting .202 with 13 homers, has not been able to control his weight problem. There could be changes coming.
4. Kyle Barraclough, RHP, Marlins — At the trade deadline, he was one of the hot commodities in the relief market. In his first 44 games, Barraclough had a 1.28 ERA, but in his last 12 he has a 19.73 ERA. Is there something amiss? There’s a theory the 28-year-old reliever has hit a wall, or has some injury. He’s allowed 20 hits in his last 8⅔ innings.
5. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays — Besides starting his arbitration clock as a reason not to promote him in September, the Jays were concerned that once he hit the big leagues all of the attention would have been focused clearly on him. Guerrero would have been under a microscope because he represents so much of the team’s future. Good theory, except why not have him break into the majors in a non-pressure environment?
6. Byron Buxton, CF, Twins — We generally believe that a team comes to regret doing what the Twins did to him (send him home so he wouldn’t get 13 more days of service time this season that would have accelerated his free agency a year). While players have been sympathetic to Buxton’s plight, from a team standpoint it makes sense. Buxton had a bad, injury-filled season. If he had been really good he would have achieved the service time easily. Tough call here, but the Twins made the right choice.
7. Steven Wright, RHP, Red Sox — He is becoming an interesting story in that he has emerged as the team’s most reliable late-inning reliever. But a constant question of baseball scouts and executives is this: Is it prudent to use Wright late in playoff games with runners on base in case of a passed ball? After all, it only takes one of those errant pitches to cost you a game. It’s no fault of Wright or the catchers. It just happens with knuckleballers.
8. Christian Vazquez, C, Red Sox — MLB executives I’ve spoken to think there could be a big market for him this offseason if the Red Sox make the offseason decision to promote Blake Swihart as their top catcher with Sandy Leon in reserve. The one issue with doing that is that there’s very little catching around baseball so why would you do it if you’re the Red Sox? Perhaps to fill another need.
9. Charlie Morton, RHP, Astros — He’s hinted a lot about retiring, but why would he? Morton is 14-3 with a 3.15 ERA. He’ll be a free agent and has cherished his time in Houston. As a free agent, he’d get lots of action, even at age 35 (which is what he’ll be in November). You could bet the Red Sox, with Alex Cora’s affection for him, would take their shot at Morton to fill a righthanded starter need.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In the NL in 2016, the average game lasted 3:07; in 2017, the average game lasted 3:06; this season, the average game has lasted only 3:05. In the AL in 2016, the average game lasted 3:02; in 2017, the average game lasted 3:10; this season, the average game has lasted only 3:03.” . . . Also, “In 2016, there were 139 batters who struck out 100-plus times, a major league record that lasted one season since 140 batters struck out 100-plus times last year. So far this season there are 125, but there are another 29 batters who have between 90-99 whiffs.” . . . Happy birthday, Brandon Moss (35), Chris Carter (36), Michael Martinez (36), Roger Moret (69), and Mike Garman (69).