Tony La Russa isn’t a Hall of Fame manager for nothing.
He spent years getting better at what he did, especially from the mental aspect of leadership. He had plenty of great leaders from other sports to draw from, including John Madden and Bill Walsh, who like him lived in the Bay area.
“I remember John Madden told me, ‘We won a championship in 1976, in 1977 we lost in the AFC Championship, and in 1978 we were [expletive] because we didn’t start the camp at zero,’ ” said La Russa. “ ‘You have start at zero the next year.’
“And throughout my managing career — and you can ask any one of my players who played for me — that’s the way we did it from a mental, fundamental, and physical standpoint. We started at zero.”
La Russa has become close friends with Bill Belichick, and in his role as vice president/special assistant of baseball operations for the Red Sox, he has been fascinated by Belichick’s motivational methods. Nobody “starts at zero” better than the Patriots coach, who often says he doesn’t want to talk about last year because last year is gone.
One of La Russa’s functions last year was to mentor Alex Cora in his first season as Red Sox manager. La Russa was certainly not overbearing in his suggestions or opinions. Cora loved the interaction and said he learned a lot just from talking to La Russa. La Russa offered his opinions, but didn’t mind one bit if Cora rejected any suggestion, whatever it was. Because above all else, La Russa was thrilled and impressed with the job Cora did.
But La Russa knows that a very difficult process of trying to repeat as World Series champions awaits this team. What are the pitfalls, the advantages, and challenges a manager has?
La Russa has been through it, and the one thing he learned from all of the people he has spoken to through the years, including Belichick, is that “you have to start each year at zero.”
In his experience as a manager, what he tried to emphasize to his coaching staff, his players, and everyone else in the organization is that, no matter how successful you’ve been, one year has nothing to do with the next.
It’s what he has noticed about Belichick teams — that you can win a Super Bowl, but at the next camp, you won’t hear the coach talking about what happened last year.
“There’s going to be a thousand questions about how great you were the year you won the World Series,” La Russa said, “but when I managed, it was important for the players and coaches and everyone involved to know that while you have to answer those questions and hear that stuff, never lose sight of what’s in front of you now.”
It seems like a simple, common-sense approach, but so many teams just can’t pull it off. The 2005, 2008, and 2014 Red Sox couldn’t pull it off. None of La Russa’s championship teams were able to repeat, but he felt some were competitive toward that goal.
“We know what the pitfalls are,” La Russa said. “You have teams that get better by adding more personnel. There are injury factors. There are factors like that that can get in the way. But the big thing is to turn the page and keep getting better as players, coaches in every way.”
Obviously there’s a hunger factor, but that ties in with starting at zero. Belichick has made a career out of that, keeping players from getting too comfortable. It’s a little different in baseball because the contracts are guaranteed, for the most part.
But that’s where the manager comes in. The manager must offer leadership and get the most out of each individual player. That’s what Cora did so well last season.
“Most of it is human nature and realizing that the competition might be greater and that you have to dig down deep internally as an organization and each player, coach, and the manager,” La Russa said.
“It starts in spring training. You walk in and you’re hearing, ‘Hey man, last year you guys were great!’
“The master is right here in our town: Belichick. Coincidentally, there’s an important owner in the Bay area that supports our animal foundation. He handed me a book about Bob Cousy, ‘The Last Pass.’ It’s fascinating.
“Of course I started thinking about repeating, and over the years I got to know Bill Russell, who is a very intelligent man who is so enlightening. Cousy and Russell repeated more than anyone.
“Point is, repeating is difficult but it’s not impossible. If someone beats you, you tip your cap. But you dig as much as you can.”
There are all sorts of motivational things that can be done to create hunger again. The simple notion that nobody thinks you can repeat is certainly one that creates that chip on the shoulder that so many great teams have to motivate them.
The us-against-the-world mentality. All of those things are out there.
Maybe some think they’re silly and oversimplified. But it has worked pretty well for Belichick.
La Russa mentioned how this Red Sox team had won consecutive division championships but didn’t fulfill the expectation of winning it all. They used that as motivation. They turned the page from the successes of 2016 and 2017, and in La Russa’s opinion, Cora was able to get them to start from zero, with different ways of doing things that made things feel brand new.
La Russa has learned a lot from his influential coaching friends through the years. Now we’ll see whether Cora can get his team back to zero.