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On Aug. 27, 2003, the Cardinals played the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium as the two teams fought for second place in the National League Central. As La Russa prepared for the game, in which his batters would face power pitcher Kerry Wood, he wrestled with one of the most complex and gut-wrenching decisions a manager faces.
What will La Russa do if he thinks Wood is intentionally throwing at one of his hitters? Wood has already plunked 14 batters this season. He not only leads the league in that category but also is on pace to hit more batters in one year than any National League pitcher since 1907. There's certainly no love lost between Wood and Albert Pujols, the Cardinals' best hitter, since Wood brushed him back with a pitch on July 4 at Wrigley Field. Wood's blazing high-and-tight fastball, which keeps hitters uneasy, may be his most effective weapon. Which is why La Russa is on edge.
He feels "so many conflicting emotions," the manager says, when one of his batters gets hit. How do you know whether or not the pitcher acted intentionally? Some managers ignore plunkings, expecting their players to take care of the matter themselves. But La Russa knows that inaction by a manager, implying that he won't defend his own guys, breeds enormous ill will down the length of the dugout. A player takes it personally when he gets hit. If the throw doesn't seriously injure him, it could still leave him with a dread that will accompany him on every trip to the plate. So at the very least, hitters expect their pitchers to retaliate against those arrogant s.o.b.'s on the mound who use batters for target practice when their stuff isn't good enough to get the job done. But La Russa also knows that if one of his pitchers responds on his own initiative, he might pick the wrong victim or a strategically inopportune moment.
La Russa was managing at Double A Knoxville in 1978 when Harold Baines, a terrific hitter and the first pick of the '77 draft, joined the team on his way up the Chicago White Sox' farm system. Paul Richards, then Chicago's farm director, knew from his own years of managing what a pitcher might do to a young hitter capable of launching a moon shot. So Richards told the young La Russa, "You must make sure Harold Baines doesn't get abused."
If a pitcher hits Baines, Richards said, don't let it fester. Don't let the players determine how to retaliate. Don't let it spread beyond your control. It might not be a bad policy to pick the best hitter on the opposing team and have your pitcher drill him. A batter for a batter--baseball's Code of Hammurabi--would serve as a deterrent against future attacks.
La Russa took Richards's advice to heart. Over the years he made it clear to his players that the Code of Hammurabi was in his hands, not theirs. He told batters, "If you think you should be protected, don't go to your pitcher. Come to me." La Russa would determine whether a plunk had been intentional and how to respond.
To be successful, La Russa knows, teams need to pitch inside. More and more hitters are able to reach the outside of the plate and get the thick head of the barrel on the ball, and the only way to move them out of range is to pitch them inside. Also, batters being pitched inside start their swings early to avoid being jammed, which then makes them susceptible to off-speed throws.
But as long as pitchers throw inside, batters are going to get hit, raising a series of questions for La Russa. In determining whether a pitcher has thrown with malice aforethought, the manager always checks with Dave Duncan, his pitching coach. Duncan can be more dispassionate than his boss, can better tell the difference between a pitch that simply wandered off course and one that sought its target. La Russa also considers the pitcher's reputation (clean competitor or cheap-shot artist?) and the club he is pitching for (some teams hit batters often enough to suggest that they make a policy of it). Furthermore, La Russa reminds himself of his own bias, the same one that all managers have: It's intentional if one of his batters gets hit, accidental if one of his pitchers hits a batter.
But once he is convinced of malicious intent, deciding how to respond is just as hard--an agony even worse for him than losing. "The responsibilities and the consequences are huge," La Russa says. Thrown baseballs have ended careers; one player, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, died as a result of a beaning in 1920. In meetings with pitchers during spring training, La Russa issued clear guidelines: Any message had to be aimed at the ribs or below. Nothing above the shoulders would be tolerated.
La Russa knows that over the years he has gained a reputation for being vengeful at times when vengeance did not seem necessary. He is also known as something of a headhunter himself, but La Russa asserts that he has never told a pitcher to throw at a hitter simply because the batter was too dangerous and needed to be quieted down. "If a guy is hitting good against us," he says, "I have never told a pitcher to go out and drill him. I have said, 'Pitch the guy tough, pitch the guy different.' If a pitcher does something on his own, I will take him out. You can pitch a hitter inside. You can try to open up the plate on him, get him to speed up the bat. But you do not drill him."