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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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The third play is a delayed double steal. As soon as the pitcher is committed to delivering the ball to the plate, the runner on first takes, La Russa says, "about three hops toward second. Slower runners do this in a way that suggests getting ready to run on a hit, not to steal. The second baseman or shortstop—whoever is supposed to cover second—sees this runner stop and relaxes regarding a steal. But on the third hop, just as the ball gets to the plate and while everyone's attention is focused there, the runner takes off for second. He probably will be out if the infielders are paying attention and cover second. But the in fielder may be late in breaking for the bag, and the catcher may therefore hesitate before throwing. The advantage of doing this with a runner on third is that the infielder is normally late in getting to second to cover a delayed steal. He takes the throw on the run, then he has to adjust himself and throw the ball back to the plate."

The fourth play is used against a lefthanded pitcher. As soon as the pitcher comes to a set position, the runner on third breaks for home. The instant he takes off, the runner on first, who is watching him, breaks for second. The left-handed pitcher is facing the runner on first. The runner racing for second may draw a throw. If he does, even if he is out, the runner on third will score. Or a split second of indecision on the part of the pitcher may allow the runner from first to reach second and the runner from third to score. "Now, here is how to defeat it," says La Russa, mentally moving to the defensive team's dugout. "When the pitcher sees the guy breaking for second, he instantly steps off [the rubber] and checks the man running from third. Then he just throws home, and the runner is out." But if the pitcher raises his arm and takes even one step toward the runner going to second, and only then throws home, it will be too late.

The fifth play is a version of the fourth, but is used against a righthanded pitcher. The runner on first breaks for second. The runner on third, with the pitcher facing him, edges down the line toward home and breaks for the plate as soon as the pitcher turns and commits to throw to second. If the pitcher does his job right, he hears his infielders shout that the runner behind him is going for second, he steps off the rubber, freezes the runner on third and throws to second.

The sixth play is the "stumble start." It is a tactic for freezing the catcher. The runner on first takes a few quick steps toward second and then pretends to fall. (La Russa demonstrates, sprawling on the carpet.) The catcher sees the runner stumble. As soon as the catcher commits to throw to first to nail the floundering runner, the man on third, who has a long lead, breaks for home.

The seventh play was a favorite of Billy Martin's. It is used against a lefthanded pitcher who has a slow move to first base. The runner on third takes a long lead. The runner on first takes enough of a lead to tempt the pitcher, who is facing him, to try to pick him off. As soon as the pitcher starts his pickoff, the runner on third breaks for home. If the runner on third has misread the pitcher's intention and the ball goes to the plate, he usually can get back to third.

The eighth play depends on the runner on first drawing a pick-off throw and intentionally getting hung up, with the ball in the first baseman's hands. The runner heads for second, and the instant the first baseman throws to second, the runner on third breaks for home.

Second base is the base most often stolen, but La Russa thinks that stealing third base is a neglected offensive weapon. "I get criticized for stealing third 'meaninglessly,' " he says. "Usually, that means that there are two outs. But it can be a high-percentage steal. And I guarantee that if you do that 15 times over the course of a season, you will score three or four extra times.

"We were playing somebody—I forget who it was—and their pitcher was slow to the plate, so our guys started saying, 'We can go, we can steal third, can't we, Skipper?' I said, 'Remember there are two things necessary for a steal. One is the pitcher's being slow to the plate. The other is the infielders' forgetting the runner.' Late in the game, one of our slower runners, someone like [catcher Terryl Steinbach, was on second. They were so conscious of their pitcher being vulnerable to stealing and of us likely to steal third, that while they were busy bluffing him back to second, a little grounder, about a 15-hopper, was hit in the vacated hole between short and third, and Steinbach scored a big run."

La Russa talks the way he manages and the way he wants his team to play, controlled but intense. His is a style, a personality, of carefully moderated but constantly maintained edginess. That same edginess is apparent in the A's baserunning. La Russa's base runners are taught to develop "antsy leads." The antsy lead is a way of convincing the pitcher's team that you are going to steal, thereby drawing a pitchout. If you do, you gain in the count and may take the pitchout weapon away from the other team, at least for that runner. "But it's important to take an antsy lead all the time, even when you are stealing," says La Russa. "If you don't, those guys [in the other dugout] will see the difference and say, 'He's not trying to decoy us—this time he's going.' They're smart over there."

La Russa leans back in his chair, sighs contentedly and says, "There's a lot of stuff goes on."

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