Appreciating the genius of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa
The author finds himself liking Tony La Russa -- and it's an odd feeling
There has never been a lineup good enough for La Russa, and he keeps tinkering
La Russa spends hours -- literally hours -- on his daily spring training schedule
JUPITER, Fla. -- Maybe it's because I'm getting older. Maybe it's because I'm just so sick of the never-ending Alex Rodriguez steroid story. Maybe it's because I'm surrounded by all those corny spring training clichés -- smell of freshly cut grass, bright yellow sunlight, sharp cracks of the bat, baseball chatter in the air -- and they still do a number on me.
Maybe. All I know is that I am finding myself liking Tony La Russa. It's an odd feeling for me. The St. Louis Cardinals manager has, for more than 25 years, represented something to me as a baseball fan, something distasteful. I generally despise coaches who overcoach, managers who overmanage, people who honestly seem to believe they are smarter than everybody else.
La Russa has been the Mozart of overmanagers. There has never been an eighth inning he could not grind into the ground with an endless series of gratuitous pitching changes. There has never been a lineup good enough for La Russa*, and he will use pinch hitters no matter the score. He loves the bunt beyond all reason. He moves runners on the pitch more than any other manager in the game. He likes to say that players win games, but he manages those players like he's their puppeteer.
*La Russa has led the league in number of lineups five times in his career, including each of the last two seasons. He set a personal record by using 153 different lineups in 2008, and while much of that was due to injury and the various limitations of that team, the truth is that Tony La Russa likes changing lineups.
On top of that, he has always seemed to me just a bit too certain of his genius. La Russa, you probably know, hangs out in the "We're pretty damned smart" rat pack coaches club -- La Russa, Bob Knight, Bill Parcells and various guest stars -- and they all are pretty damned smart, but, hey, nobody in sports is THAT smart. I remember being around once when La Russa explained why he hits the pitcher eighth, and I understood his reasoning, but he just sounded so certain that he was right and, basically, every other manager who ever lived was wrong. There's a line somewhere between confidence and arrogance, and another line between arrogance and self-delusion, and, for me, La Russa seemed to cross all those lines all the time. As a fan he drove me nuts.*
*One of my favorite baseball lines ever was written by Tom Keegan when he was with the New York Post. He was writing about another baseball genius, Bobby Valentine. "Had he known that his New York Mets would play baseball so badly," Keegan wrote, "Bobby Valentine never would have invented the game in the first place." More or less, that's how I felt about La Russa.
So, why do I find myself now sitting here on a metal bench at St. Louis Cardinals camp, getting sunburned, watching La Russa talk to players in small groups, and thinking: "Man, I really like this guy?" It's not easy to explain.
My first hint of this came when the day began, and La Russa had his usual question and answer session with the media. A La Russa media session is slightly different than that of any other manager in the big leagues -- he doesn't answer questions so much as he challenges them. Someone asks him why, La Russa asks why not, and round it goes. Sometimes the exchanges are testy, more often they are sarcastic and good-natured. But they are never easy.
"Hey guys, excuse me," La Russa said suddenly as he looked on the field. "I've got to see this. I love this drill."
And, I don't know, that got me. I watched him jog toward the field to watch a throwing drill, a boring old throwing drill, and he had this happy look on his face, like this was exactly where he wanted to be. La Russa has been managing big league baseball games since 1979, since disco, since Jimmy Carter was in office. He was 34 years old when he started, when he took over as the kid genius of the Chicago White Sox. In the years since he has been hired and fired, he has won two World Series and been swept in two others, he has managed great players and pains in the neck, he has been triumphant and he has been disappointed. He is going to win his 2,500th game this year. There doesn't seem to be much left to see. But here he was, on a nothing day early in spring training, and he got into a simple baseball drill as if it was a Bruce Springsteen concert.