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George F. Will
March 12, 1990
To Tony La Russa, the art of baseball managing is a mastery of the details
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March 12, 1990

A Head For The Game

To Tony La Russa, the art of baseball managing is a mastery of the details

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Gary Gaetti, the Minnesota Twins' third baseman, embodies everything La Russa likes in a player—intelligence, intensity, hustle. Once when an Athletics pitcher deliberately hit Gaetti, at a time when Gaetti was blistering Oakland pitching, La Russa called the pitcher on the carpet, telling him, "You'll never pitch for me again if you do that again." La Russa explains, "We can make the hitter uncomfortable pitching in on his hands. But that is it."

Regarding retaliation, La Russa has a doctrine of measured response. "It's a 2-1 game, and your big guy gets bopped in the bottom of the eighth inning. Now you've got to go out in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead and you need three outs. Who should make the decision whether you retaliate? It's got to be the manager. Sometimes you walk up to your player who got hit and say, I really believe this guy took a shot at you. We'll get somebody in the first inning tomorrow.' "

La Russa is a stickler for proportionality in punishment. "You try to match, as best you can," he says. "If they take a shot at your big producer, then you take a shot at their big producer. If they've just cold-cocked McGwire and their first batter in the inning is their light-hitting second baseman, that's not the guy. If someone takes a shot at Walter Weiss, then you look for their promising rookie or their second-year player who's a star.

"We will never, ever retaliate above the shoulder. The guy will get stung, but he will play again. Once you establish that you'll protect your players, that is a part of the game you shouldn't have to worry about. Then the only things left are those natural, unavoidable confrontations between two competitive teams trying to beat each other. If someone throws a fastball outside and Jose hits a home run to rightfield, they may try to throw a fastball inside to get him out. If they miss, they might hit him. You'll never avoid those."

On a cold, rainy February day in 1989 in Oakland, where February is concentrated grayness, the Athletics' offices in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum are a warm swarm of green and gold. A truck is being loaded with bats and balls bound for Phoenix. The manager is thinking of spring training, and beyond, to Opening Day, and beyond that, to a series with Chicago.

Rummaging through, his briefcase, La Russa extracts one of the tools of his trade, a three-by-five index card. Over the course of a season he fills hundreds of these with notations in his small, precise print. The card he has just fished from the briefcase lists every playing date in April. Next to each day is a number—1, 2, 3, 4 or 5—for each starting pitcher by his rank in the rotation. Opening Day is still 53 days away, but La Russa has his starters selected for every game up to May 1, and today he is considering whether, because of an open date, he can give his No. 1 starter, Dave Stewart, an extra turn in a series with the White Sox. After consulting his pitching charts, he decides against the move.

Now, as the rain falls and his spirits rise, La Russa, semiformal in blue jeans and a tan sport jacket, begins to talk about "situation baseball," particularly the A's double-steal possibilities with runners on first and third. The double steal is difficult to execute. La Russa estimates that anytime you try a trick play against major league talent, the odds are 60-40 or 70-30 against its working. "But," he says, "If you have a guy at the plate who is not a very good RBI man, who doesn't have a good chance of driving in the runners, well, go ahead and take a shot."

With runners on first and third, La Russa has a variety of options. There is, first, the straight steal, in which the runner at third bluffs a dash toward home as the runner on first tries to steal second. The hope is that the bluff by the runner on third will cause the catcher to hesitate for a sufficient fraction of a second to make the steal of second successful. Beyond the straight steal, there are eight other permutations of the first-and-third situation.

One is the regular double steal. The runner on first breaks for second. If the catcher throws to second, the runner on third breaks for home the instant the catcher's arm starts forward.

The second play is especially suited for first-and-third with two outs. The man on first breaks toward second, and then stops. If the catcher throws through to second, the runner on third breaks for home the instant the catcher's arm starts forward, hoping to score before the runner trapped between first and second can be put out in a rundown.

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