Hall of Famers present, future dominate Day 1 at winter meetings
ORLANDO -- They sat shoulder to shoulder, and you couldn't help but think you were looking at living baseball history the likes of which we may not see for a very long time, if ever again. Bobby Cox was flanked by Joe Torre, who once replaced him in Atlanta, and by Tony La Russa, who once replaced Torre in St. Louis. The three newest electees of the Hall of Fame combined for 91 years and 13,934 games of managerial experience. La Russa, Cox and Torre rank 3-4-5 in managerial wins and 2-4-6 in games.
The scene at the winter meetings on Monday was as close to a living Mount Rushmore as you get when it comes to big league managers. There once was a time, from 1988 through 2006, when 14 of the 18 World Series featured La Russa, Cox or Torre. So deserving were the three managers that they become the first candidates elected unanimously since the Hall redefined its former Veterans Committee procedures in 2008.
Their managerial careers alone bridged vast changes in how the game is played. All of them were managing as far back as 1979, when free agency was but three years old and the multi-layered specialized bullpen didn't exist, and as recently as 2010, when baseball had become a $7 billion business.
But on a day when they achieved baseball immortality, the three of them also offered a reminder of the power of patience. The three greatest managers of this generation all had losing records and no playoff appearances after four years on the job: La Russa (238-244), Cox (266-323) and Torre (245-358) all needed more years and more jobs before they become great.
None of them reached the World Series in their first job. It took La Russa until his second job, Cox his third and Torre his fourth to win a pennant. Not much has changed in that regard. None of the past eight managers to win the World Series did so in his first job; the last to do so was Ozzie Guillen with the 2005 White Sox.
With that in mind, I asked each of them how the job of managing a baseball team changed over the arc of their careers in the dugout. Cox decided "there weren't a lot of differences," mostly because he said he was fortunate enough to manage franchises, Toronto and Atlanta, with stability in the front office and enough talent on the field to succeed.
Torre and La Russa both recognized that the distractions on players had complicated the job. Getting players to buy into team play, Torre said, remains just as important as it always has been, but became more complex to accomplish.
"We're just glorifying individual accomplishments so much more," Torre said. "But what I did was try to let them know you can't go through life by yourself, no less become a champion by yourself. It's like Bill Belichick once said: players win games, but teams win championships.
"So managing is a little tougher these days. And at the end, I still enjoyed it, but I thought somebody younger should be doing that."
La Russa was the most direct about how the job changed. He agreed with Torre that the distractions have multiplied.
"I was right at the beginning of guaranteed contracts," La Russa said. "So right away players had potential security and they were motivated by, 'Get yours. Get yours.'
"And then the media [grew]. ESPN started in September of '79. You really had to fight off the distractions of fame and fortune. So what I believed, and this is something we learned over time, leadership is more important than ever in professional sports."
What made the job even more difficult, La Russa said, is the shift in authority from the dugout to the front office when it comes to decision-making on playing matters. As intellect and available information has risen among executives, the authority of the manager has eroded, which La Russa said erodes the manager's job of getting players to buy into team play. General managers, for instance, upon consultation with their statistical analysts are now handing batting order suggestions to their manager. Pre-determined workloads and roles for pitchers are often set from the front office.
"The metrics part of it is a really good preparation tool, but when you start replacing the manager, his decision-making, what you're doing is undercutting his opportunity to earn respect, and his leadership gets affected," La Russa said. "Because who gets the credit for those decisions? That's 180 degrees going in the wrong place. So leadership is more important. The more than you can support your leader, which is the coaching staff and manager, the better chance you have to win."
La Russa noted that he entered the business of managing when managers had such outsized personalities and influence you could identify the biggest simply by one name: Whitey, Billy, Sparky, Tommy, Earl, Gene, etc. No one wields that kind of influence any more. La Russa, Cox and Torre were not so much the last of the breed as they were a bridge -- a long bridge -- to the game we have today.
La Russa popularized the specialized bullpen. Cox enabled an incredible run of consistency by keeping his pitchers healthy and, from a style he borrowed from former Yankees manager Ralph Houk, by keeping his players devoted to him with his unwavering belief in them. Torre presaged the modern template of a "players' manager" in which organizations value communication skills more highly.
Torre also understood the rules of engagement for postseason games required more urgency. Time has served only to brighten his star. At a time when we consistently write off the postseason as a glorified crapshoot, when wild card teams come out of nowhere and postseason series turn quickly, Torre's Yankees won 14 of their first 15 postseason series -- an amazing run through the October minefield that's hard to fathom today. They once won 14 World Series games in a row.
(Torre, by the way, has carved out a unique place in Cooperstown given how successful he was as a player and manager. He is the only man with more than 2,300 hits as a player and more than 2,300 wins as a manager. He lasted all 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, topping out at 22 percent in his final year.)
In their own ways, La Russa, Cox and Torre helped change the game from a leadership position. Yes, how the job is done may have changed, but they are reminders that strong leadership never should be undervalued -- and that more often than not, such strong leadership takes time to be fully known.
The Expansion Era committee will consider its next ballot in 2016, barring any revamping of the voting procedures by the Hall, which leads to this question: who's next to go from the dugout to the Hall? Hall of Fame committees have elected six managers in the past six years, with La Russa, Cox and Torre joining Whitey Herzog (2010) and Billy Southworth and Dick Williams (2008) as the recent electees among managers.
"If anything, this vote raises the bar," said committee member Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau.
True enough, no one else can ride the coattails of this legendary group. An unofficial criteria has emerged for Hall of Fame managers: win a lot of games while winning the World Series at least once. The election of these three managers means that among all the managers in history who have won at least one World Series, the top 12 as ranked by wins are all in the Hall of Fame.
So who's next if you follow that rubric? Here is the next set of managers as ranked by wins who have won a World Series and are not yet in the Hall: 1. Lou Piniella (1,835). 2. Jim Leyland (1,769). 3. Ralph Houk (1,619). 4. Bruce Bochy (1,530). 5. Davey Johnson (1,372). 6. Chuck Tanner (1,352). 7. Billy Martin (1,253). 8. Mike Scioscia (1,233).
(Dusty Baker, with 1,671 wins, also deserves mention, though he never has won a World Series.)
Tanner has a losing record, Martin, who never provided stability as a manager, never has gained traction in multiple committees and Houk doesn't even manage to get on ballots. That leaves Piniella, Leyland and Johnson as likely ballot additions in 2016, though none are the certainties that were La Russa, Cox and Torre.
(In the non-manager division, former Braves GM John Schuerholz, who should have been on this ballot, and Jack Morris, if he is not elected in his final try through the Baseball Writers Association of America this year, will be the strongest first-time Expansion Era candidates.)
The one to keep your eye on is Bochy -- though not for 2016. The Giants manager is signed through 2016. While he has a .500 career record, Bochy does have two world championships. With 90 more wins, Bochy will pass Houk in career wins and become the manager with the most wins and two titles to not be in the Hall of Fame.
Roy Halladay earned a ticket to the Hall of Fame with a 10-year window of brilliance: 170-75 with a 2.97 ERA from 2002-11 after he was a 24-year-old reclamation project demoted to Class A ball to re-learn how to pitch. He set himself apart from his peers with that sustained success but also with his determination. Since Jack Morris retired after the 1994 season, Halladay has thrown more complete games than any pitcher in baseball (67).
But Halladay also is a cautionary tale for what passes for the workhorses left in the game today. In two short years he went from Cy Young Award runner-up in 2011 to announcing his retirement Monday. His back and shoulder simply gave out that quickly.
The side of the baseball road is strewn with retired, injured or declining workhorses from the past few years: Halladay, Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, Brandon Webb, Jered Weaver, CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, Roy Oswalt, etc.
When Halladay was traded to Philadelphia in December 2009 he signed a team-friendly extension of only three years with a fourth-year vesting option that never came into play. The Phillies were fortunate to have so little exposure on such a great arm. (A year later, with Halladay's blessing, the Phillies gave Cliff Lee five years.)
Halladay, like Santana, is a reminder of how quickly a pitcher's career can turn downward, and why long-term contracts for pitchers are especially risky. Halladay was a happy man Monday, knowing he had given his body to baseball.
"He looks like a man at peace," said J.P. Ricciardi, his general manager in Toronto. "That's what I see: a man at peace. He gave it everything he had. From day one of spring training he was ready to go. I mean from the first day of spring training he already was ready to go."
The Doc could no longer heal thyself, but it was a good day for Halladay. There were no regrets and he was coming home to his family full time. But it was a cautionary day for the next generation of workhorses on long-term deals, including Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (signed through 2019), Zack Greinke, Adam Wainwright and Cole Hamels (2018) and Matt Cain (2017).
The Braves do not have major shopping items on their agenda this winter, but according to one source their top priority is working out extensions with some of their young stars before spring training begins.
"They probably missed the boat on [Freddie] Freeman in terms of locking him up early," said one NL executive, noting the price has gone up after Freeman's big 2013 season. "But especially as they move into their new ballpark, they need to make sure their homegrown core is going to be there with them."
The Braves put off contact extensions too long for their young players and now they face getting hammered in arbitration. They have nine players eligible for arbitration, including Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Chris Johnson. Ouch.
Actually, Atlanta did make a run at signing Heyward to a contract extension before last season to buy out his arbitration years. But Heyward, coming off a bounceback season in 2012 (.814 OPS, 27 homers) balked at what the Braves put on the table. He then regressed in an injury-plagued season (.776, 14 homers in 104 games).
Heyward is eligible for free agency in 2016 and Freeman in 2017. The last time Atlanta locked up on of its homegrown stars was in 2007, when it secured Brian McCann for seven years (including an option) at the relative bargain of $38.8 million.