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You do not talk long with a baseball person before you hear the phrase "baseball person." Often it is accompanied by a negative: So-and-so is "not a baseball person." No adjective is required, thank you very much. A baseball person is a good baseball person. A palocracy can make for kinder, gentler governance, but it also can make the world safe for mediocrity. (The prince of managerial mediocrity was Wilbert Robinson. Uncle Robbie managed the Dodgers for 19 years and produced this record: 1,397 wins, 1,395 losses. It is a shame one of those wins was not a loss.)
Now baseball is becoming more meritocratic in every aspect, and few major league managers are quick to boast of job security. La Russa was only 41 when he had the fundamental experience of modern managing. He was fired. The White Sox, who must rue the day, fired him in 1986. That dismissal, he says, "toughened me up pretty well." He certainly is tough enough now. During a game in '87, Jose Canseco, then a rookie, failed to hustle on a play; the 230-pound Canseco returned to the dugout to find the 190-pound La Russa furious. La Russa told him, "Do that again, I'll knock you on your ass."
La Russa never became one of the hard-core unemployed. On July 1, 1986, less than a month after being fired by Chicago, he was hired by Oakland. The Athletics were in last place, 21 games below .500, which is not easy to do before the All-Star break. The rest of the year, under La Russa, they went 45-34. In '87 they played only .500 ball, but in the American League West that was good enough for third place, just four games behind the division-winning Twins. The '88 Athletics became the first Western Division team to lead the American League in wins since La Russa's '83 White Sox. In '87 and '88 the A's were 105-63 against the American League East. In 1989 they finished 99-63, as La Russa managed them to a world championship.
Situations are shaped in innumerable ways by managers, by what they do to prepare for a game and what they do during a game. La Russa says, with a fine sense of semantic tidiness, that what are called baseball "instincts" involve much more than instinctual behavior. These instincts are actually the result, he says, "of an accumulation of baseball information. They are uses of that information as the basis of decision-making as game situations develop. Your instincts may say, Pitch out now, and later you may say, Why did I do that? When you trust your gut, you are trusting a lot of stuff that is there from the past."
The accumulated information is evident when La Russa examines elements of strategy, such as playing for the big inning. It is an old baseball joke that big-inning baseball is affirmed in the Book of Genesis: "In the big inning, God created...." La Russa knows well the key to creating big innings: "First and third, nobody out—you're talking about a big inning," he says. "To me, the secret of scoring a lot of runs is getting guys into scoring position as many times as you can." But when considering a hit-and-run, there are three variables: the pitcher's control, the batter's ability to make contact and the runner's speed. La Russa wants to have at least two of them in his favor.
"Suppose the other team has a guy on the mound who throws real hard and is wild," he says. "Suppose you have a free swinger at the plate and a slow runner on first. That's about as bad a situation as you could pick for a hit-and-run, no matter what the game situation is. You want to hit-and-run when you know the pitch is going to be close enough to the strike zone that the batter can put it in play. Your free swinger may swing through even a good pitch, and the slow runner breaking from first base will be dead."
Again and again La Russa returns to baseball's fundamental trade-off: the purchase of opportunity with the coin of risk. The crucial concept in baseball is the creation of opportunities. That means putting people on base. Fans are fascinated by each hitter's average with runners in scoring position. But the difference between an average of .275 and .250 is of little importance compared with how many runners the team gets into scoring position. Consider a team loaded with power hitters but short on batters with high on-base averages. Such a team may have more trouble scoring runs in bunches than a team that is short on power hitters but capable of getting lots of men to first base and willing to take risks by running.
Thinking aloud about the risks in this game that has risks on every hand, La Russa plays Ping-Pong in his mind with alternatives. Ping: "If the pitcher against us is someone we hardly ever hit, like Dave Stieb, well, push it. Why sit back and get beat? So what if you have a play that has a poor chance of being successful? Your chances that day are poor anyway. So, for example, if you have a slow runner on first, a power hitter at the plate and a 2-and-oh count, it is a good time to start the runner because the other side will be surprised." Pong: "But it may also be a bad time because the power hitter may not be reliable about putting the ball in play to prevent the slow runner from being thrown out at second."
La Russa believes in taking risks precisely because baseball is all risks, the odds being against almost anything you try. "If we get a man to second with no one out," he says, "we may have three guys coming up who can hit home runs, but why stand around and wait for that? Let's have the next guy get the runner to third and pick up one run. It's not correct to sit and wait for extra-base hits. We want to establish an A's style of play, a lot of effort and playing with an idea."
La Russa's idea is to find a way to find an edge in every situation. Weaver's credo was: Make all your outs at home plate, not on the bases. That is not La Russa's style. Some managers, as soon as they fall behind by even one run, become less aggressive about starting runners or otherwise risking outs on a steal or hit-and-run. La Russa thinks such restraint is often unreasonable. Suppose, he says, you are down by three runs going into your at bat in the third inning. Suppose your eighth-place hitter gets on first with one out, your ninth-place hitter is, to begin with, a ninth-place hitter and he is struggling. Assume, for good measure, that he is facing a sinkerball pitcher, so a ground ball is probable. La Russa says: Start the runner. The ninth-place hitter probably will not get a hit, but if he grounds out, you will have a man at second and two outs and your leadoff man up. The fact that you are behind does not make it any more likely that the ninth-place hitter will score the runner by getting an extra-base hit.