Column: La Russa smart enough to get out on top
Tony La Russa's genius as a manager will be debated for decades. Not so his exit..
"What a way to go out," Washington Nationals manager and sometimes-rival Davey Johnson said, summing up what just about everybody in baseball was thinking.
Great entertainers talk about leaving with the audience wanting more, and La Russa did that. He could have been back managing in St. Louis next year if he desired, or anywhere else for that matter, for as long as he wanted. His resume hardly needed updating.
In his 33rd season, he just notched his first Game 7 and his third World Series title, once again validating the thousands of wins that already staked him to a comfortable third place on the all-time list. He's been called a pioneer for using computers before they were fashionable in baseball and credited with developing the modern bullpen and creating the one-inning closer, starting with Dennis Eckersley in Oakland some two decades ago. More impressive, perhaps, La Russa was still tinkering with conventional wisdom as recently as the final few innings of Game 7 on Friday night, mulling over a very risky scheme to move right-handed closer Jason Motte to the outfield for an out or two -- in case he needed a left-handed reliever -- and then putting him back on the mound.
La Russa's reputation for innovation, though, cut both ways. Some of the same people who lauded him for heralding the dawn of the statistical age in baseball turned on La Russa for dragging his feet once "Moneyball" became all the rage. Others argued that being a control freak may explain how La Russa won two Series rings with less-talented squads in St. Louis, but also failed to win more than one in Oakland, where he presided over teams bristling with individual stars and unchecked egos. What was often overlooked by both sides in the debate was how desperate La Russa was to win every time out regardless of tactics. Tigers manager Jim Leyland was one of several confidants who believed La Russa, a lawyer who has never practiced, got his degree mostly to see if he could finish atop his class.
"Look, we all want to win. It's the business," said Leyland, who first ran up against La Russa as a minor league manager in 1979, then went to work for him and remains one of his closest pals. "But Tony wanted to win in spring training. He wanted everything done right from the start, and he'd manage spring-training games like it was the regular season. He'd be pinch-hitting, making double-switches, making sure every guy on the roster got some time in, whatever it took -- and that was in spring training."
Somewhere along the way, Leland argued, everybody else in the business takes a game or two off, surrendering to fatigue, indifference or other distractions. Not La Russa. Asked to describe his friend and rival with one word, Leyland said: "Relentless."
"It's like he was born to manage," Leyland added a moment later.
That will to win cut both ways, too. La Russa's Oakland teams turned out to be an incubator for baseball's steroids era and former Athletics slugger Mark McGwire was the star of La Russa's first few St. Louis squads. He's been notoriously loyal to every one of his ballplayers, but he's defended a handful or so beyond all doubt. That may have burnished his reputation inside the clubhouse; outside, it's a tarnished spot on an otherwise impeccable career.
But controversy never stopped La Russa, nor did it slow him. He became an outspoken advocate for the animal-rights group, PETA, and turned up at Glen Beck's "Restore America" rally last year with slugger Albert Pujols, who was getting an award.
Leyland said people who think La Russa worries about being second-guessed are wasting their time. Being unafraid to follow his convictions, in fact, might be La Russa's greatest strength.
"I think you can make a case for him as best of all-time. Absolutely," Leyland said. "Why? The total package.
"He was a tremendous tactician during the games. His teams were always prepared before the games. He never had a problem talking about what he'd done after the game. People see that now, but what a lot of them don't know -- or don't remember -- is he was the same way starting out as a manager."
A moment later, Leyland recalled a statement he credited to former Boston manager Terry Francona, though it's been around baseball forever.
`He used to say `If you manage for the guys in the seats, pretty soon you'll be sitting with `em.'" Leyland said with a chuckle. "Tony never worried about that stuff. It's a good lesson for managers."
And hardly the only one.