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Tony La Russa topped my list of best managers in the game two years ago. But last year I switched to Mike Scioscia. This year I am back to La Russa. It's nothing Scioscia has done wrong. In fact, under impossible and tragic circumstances he's kept his Angels team together as well as anyone possibly could have. I am just back to recognizing the true genius of La Russa.
Here are my third-annual managerial rankings:
1. La Russa, Cardinals: We can't ever forget he won a World Series in 2006 with a team that was generally considered the eighth-best of eight in the playoffs. But even better, he and pitching coach Dave Duncan consistently have gotten the most out of their roster ever since. "He did his best job the last two years," one competing GM said. The Cardinals consistently play to win, and they consistently outplay their talent. La Russa might not win personality or popularity contests, but you can't argue with the results. It'll be interesting to see if he stays in one of the greatest jobs in sports beyond this season, because his contract's up again after the year and he doesn't appear as close to new GM John Mozeliak as he was to the deposed Walt Jocketty, now the Reds' GM.
2. Scioscia, Angels: He's kept his disheartened team focused on the field after the worst-imaginable scenario, the tragic death of promising pitcher Nick Adenhart, one of three victims hit by a drunk driver hours after Adenhart threw six shutout innings in his season debut. The team easily could have quit after that, or after the injuries to John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Vlad Guerrero. But Scioscia has made sure the Angels continue to give their best effort. The Angels are only two games back in the division race and Lackey and Santana are expected to return within two weeks. No one plays a more exciting brand of baseball than the Angels under Scioscia, a true leader. He just signed a 10-year contract, with the last three years voidable at his option. I don't know the price and can still say it's a good deal for the Angels.
3. Terry Francona, Red Sox: He knows how to treat people, even folks like Manny Ramirez, who may be a little bit whacky. Players said much of Man-Ram's wackiness in Boston never even made the papers, and that's probably to Francona's credit. He's also not bad with strategy, a fact that seems to be overlooked.
4. Joe Torre, Dodgers: Sure, I thought his time was up with the Yankees. And I've heard the claims that he's lucked into yet another great situation with the Dodgers. But his teams just keep winning, and you can't argue with that kind of success. On Tuesday night, they made it 12 straight home wins to start the year, tying the record of Ty Cobb's 1911 Tigers. The Yankee Years, the best-selling book written with Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci, has not adversely affected the Dodgers one iota, as Torre has this very young team playing hard and staying focused. Matt Kemp, for one, appears to be growing up before our eyes.
5. Ron Gardenhire, Twins: If La Russa gets the most out of seemingly average teams in the National League, Gardenhire has mastered that same trick in the AL -- the tougher league. Gardenhire has continued the tradition of Twins teams playing all-out all the time, which started with underrated skipper Tom Kelly. Gardenhire's overlooked on these lists all the time.
6. Cito Gaston, Blue Jays: It's really a shame the 65-year-old Gaston was out of the game for a ridiculous 11 years. It could have been because Gaston doesn't exactly light a room up with his personality, though closet racism on the part of some can't be ruled out as a cause. Whatever the reason, it was baseball's loss. It seems the Jays always play best when he's their manager.
7. Ozzie Guillen, White Sox: There's really no good reason not to love Ozzie besides occasional political incorrectness. Sure, he's goofy. But don't let that fool you. He's smart. We can't forget he ran the table with a very good but not great team in 2005.
8. Charlie Manuel, Phillies: He wasn't afraid to take on his biggest stars when necessary last year, and that was no small thing on the way to the Phillies' first World Series title in 28 seasons. This year he's keeping a team together with a pitching staff that seemingly allows two or three homers every game.
9. Joe Maddon, Rays: Like Torre, he always seems to know the right thing to say. And the right way to say it. And like Scioscia, a young mentor of his, he has his team playing a winning style of baseball. He performed a miracle last year by calling a 27-game improvement, and then pulling it off with room to spare in a historic 31-game improvement (66 wins to 97). He's running into tough going now, though, trying to get his team to duplicate that magic.
10. Lou Piniella, Cubs: One of the two most entertaining managers in the game (sharing honors with cross-town colleague Guillen). But that bad defeat in the division series to Torre's Dodgers is hard to ignore, so he's slipped a few spots. Piniella won with the 1990 Reds, which was certainly a very neat trick, but he's struggled in the playoffs since and wasted time in hometown Tampa.
Others: There was criticism in past years for ranking Bobby Cox in the second five, and I'll have to accept what comes my way now for omitting him altogether. But this isn't 1995 anymore. Cox was a very good manager in his heyday, and players consistently vouch for him, even today. But he was never great strategically and he's lost a vast majority of one-run road games in recent years, including a record 29 straight on the road that was ended last Sept. 13 (some of that may be attributable to a shaky bullpen, though).
It hurts me not to include a favorite, Jim Leyland, for the first time. However, last year was a complete waste for the Tigers, who had one of the highest payrolls in baseball and a consistently blah team that finished behind the upstart Royals.
Dusty Baker is a three-time manager of the year. But without Barry Bonds, he looks rather ordinary from here.
There are some fine up-and-comers, and I especially like the Marlins' Fredi Gonzalez, who has to combine babysitting duties with managerial stratagems at times with his very young club. Don Wakamatsu is off to a nice start in Seattle. The Indians' Eric Wedge has his moments, though not lately. Jerry Manuel did a nice job for the Mets last year. And I'm not giving up on Joe Girardi yet, though his team better get back to health if he wants to make it to a third year managing in the Bronx.
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