Literature had Bloomsbury. Physics had the Manhattan Project. Baseball has this year's League Championship Series, a harmonic convergence of managing's brightest lights and most distinctive personalities. The Cardinals' Tony La Russa, the Mariners' Lou Piniella, the Yankees' Joe Torre and the Mets' Bobby Valentine are among the best of the current skipper class, in achievement and in outsized reputation. The Braves' Bobby Cox may have better numbers, and the Expos' Felipe Alou may get the most bang for his buck, but, hey, Rushmore has room for only four faces.
Not to say that any of this group is lacking in stat cred. La Russa, Piniella and Torre have won World Series, making this only the third time since divisional play began in 1969 that so many ring-wearing skippers have landed in the same final four. Valentine hasn't won anything yet, but over the last two years he has the best regular-season winning percentage of the four. He is—as he'd gladly tell you—one of the most astute baseball minds of our time.
Track records are just half of it. There are also the personalities, as recognizable to the average fan as the stock characters in a Hollywood action flick Torre, the new Yankee yogi, is the very picture of Zen, whether sipping green tea from a paper cup behind the cage before games or sitting droopy-eyed on the bench during them, like a parent struggling to stay awake at a school play. Sweet Lou, after simmering his way through his playing days and his managing career, is finally living up to his nickname. Ejected only twice this year, Piniella has calmed and now is as prone to goofy stunts as to hat-mashing tantrums.
La Russa, law school sheepskin in one hand and a copy of Bill James in the other, is the gray-streaked professor, at turns brilliant ("No one is more prepared," says a National League scout) and eccentric (batting his pitcher eighth). Then there's Valentine, baseball's Machiavelli. He's untrustworthy and untrusting, insouciant and insecure, but his joy at beating a fellow manager is outstripped only by his fellow managers' joy at beating him.
After the Mariners swept his team last week, White Sox manager Jerry Manuel conceded he was outmaneuvered by Piniella. Responded Piniella, "I don't believe in outmanaging. I believe in putting players in position to do their jobs. When they do, the manager looks good." In that case here's to baseball's finest temp-agency execs.