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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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(Author's note: At this point there was to have been a paragraph giving a particularly fascinating detail about La Russa's use of another kind of pilfered information. However, as a condition of being given access to team meetings—a reasonable condition—and to allow La Russa to speak without inhibition in our many meetings, I had agreed to excise any detail that he might decide he did not want to see published. There were very few of these. But on the morning of Oct. 27, 1989, the day the World Series resumed in San Francisco after the earthquake, he asked that I remove the paragraph that had been here. Because the detail being removed was such a telling illustration of his meticulousness, I put up a small, brief argument for keeping it in. It was a feeble argument, and considering the man I was trying to persuade, it was singularly dumb. "That detail makes you look good," I said foolishly. He replied frostily, "The way a manager looks good is by winning the game. That detail might cost me a run." Case closed, as lawyers like La Russa say.)

La Russa has managed only in the American League and therefore only with the designated hitter. He does not feel that the DH cramps his style or denies him scope for his talents. He is right. The theory that the DH is anti-intellectual, because it diminishes strategy and makes baseball safe for slow-witted managers, is a weak reed on which to lean for support.

The theory is that when pitchers must bat, managers must be Aristotles, deciding when to remove pitchers for pinch hitters or when to have pitchers bunt. National League chauvinists make much of the fact that in their league, if the fifth hitter in the order gets on base, the sixth hitter must move him over so the seventh hitter will have a chance to drive him in. Otherwise the opposing team will pitch around the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher. So there is more emphasis on scoring one run at a time. But in fact, National League baseball may be more uniform and routinized because the so-called strategy regarding when to pinch-hit for the pitcher or when to have him bunt is so banal. More nonpitchers bunt in the American League than in the National League. And American League teams differ more in their use of sacrifices than National League teams. In some ways the DH makes managing more difficult. Again, most pinch-hitting situations are obvious. What often is far from obvious is when to remove pitchers who never need to be removed for pinch hitters. That is an American League manager's problem.

To the argument that the DH takes a lot of strategy out of managing, La Russa responds brusquely, "It definitely does not. The National League is a great propaganda league: They say, 'We're the hard-throwing, running, let's-go-get-'em league, whereas the American League is....' It's not true."

Warming to his defense of the DH, he says that handling a pitching staff—perhaps a manager's most important task—is tougher in the American League. "Every decision you make in the American League regarding your pitching staff is based solely on who you think should pitch to the next hitter, or in the next inning," he says. "In the National League you get certain times when the decision is taken right out of your hands."

At precisely 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning La Russa strides into a coffee shop hard by the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. That is where the Athletics play and where La Russa spent the night. Nine hours earlier his team beat the Boston Red Sox, and it will do so again in four hours. La Russa is wearing running shoes, blue sweatpants and a T-shirt the distinctive orange of a Wheaties cereal box. The front of the shirt is emblazoned with the Wheaties logo. When a fan who recognizes him compliments him on the shirt, La Russa replies, "Read the back." The back says, COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE.

Last night the mighty Athletics—who play "bashball" and who after hitting home runs bump forearms rather than merely swapping high fives—beat the Red Sox 1-0. They got their run on a suicide squeeze. The ball traveled 30 feet and was laid down by Glenn Hubbard, who stands 5'7". Funny business, baseball. Why is La Russa not laughing?

Laughing? He is not even eating. All he has ordered is a wedge of melon, and he is barely picking at it. His stomach is, he says, not exactly upset, but he is still too tense, too drained to eat. It was, La Russa says, one of the most draining games of his career.

Today's game starts at noon. No one will have had enough sleep. It is the last day in August. Tomorrow begins the month when, for the best baseball teams, life is real, life is earnest. Emotions are high, as are the stakes. Nerves are often raw and tempers are short. In the game last night one player on each team was hit by a pitch. It is time to think about the ethical and prudential problems of throwing at opposing batters and of retaliating when it happens to your batters. La Russa's policy is the result of much reflection. He has thought often and hard about his reputation as a man with a hard side.

"If a guy is hitting well against our club, I have never, ever told a pitcher, 'Let's go ahead and hit him,' " he says. "Some managers do that." In 1987, when McGwire set a record for rookies, with 49 home runs, he hit two homers in a weekend series against the Red Sox and got hit on Sunday. On the head. La Russa's normally muted tone changes and disgust fills his voice when he speaks about those who say, "This guy's wearing us out—knock him on his ass."

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