Smile Politely

The Myth of La Russa, “The Genius”

Let’s get three things straight about Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. First, a pet peeve: There is a space between “La” and “Russa.” Second, his lifetime Major League batting average as a middle infielder is one point below the Mendoza Line. Third, and most important, his 2,393 career wins as a Major League manager place him among some select, Hall-of-Fame company: Only Connie Mack and John McGraw have more victories.

Mack, who has won — by far — more games than any other manager in MLB history, 3,731, also has 3,948 losses. I bring this up because wins, as a metric for the success of managers and starting pitchers alike, don’t tell the whole story. And in the case of La Russa, the whole story is worth telling.

Despite the fact that La Russa went to the World Series like clockwork in the late 1980s as skipper of the A’s, I didn’t really know him from Jimy Williams, Tom Kelly or Roger Craig. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to appreciate the role of the manager. Perhaps the cynic in me was blossoming, but as I aged I became more apt to denounce a manager’s choice of pinch-hitter or public insult. During my freshman year of college, I read George Will’s Men at Work and was formally introduced to La Russa, who Will thought highly enough of to sing his praises in a quarter of the book. (I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I was reading the book just one year before La Russa would don the Birds on the Bat.)

It was Will’s selection of La Russa as a manager worthy of canonization that likely inspired hatred for the man among many baseball fans, plenty of whom find La Russa generally overrated as a tactician, think his law degree makes him too big for his britches or simply like to mock the fact that he wears his sunglasses at night, has an animal foundation and is a vegetarian. The fact that Buzz Bissinger chose him as the subject for his 2005 book, 3 Nights in August, likely didn’t win La Russa many additional supporters, especially among Cubs fans.

As for me, I could care less about La Russa’s accolades, because I’ve now formed my own somewhat reasoned opinion of the man. I don’t concern myself with the empty trips to the World Series (his teams are two-for-five, but have twice been swept, including in 2004 by the Red Sox). I’m not much bothered by the myriad ways in which La Russa has, to some degree, challenged baseball’s traditions by micro-managing his team in the late innings via double-switches and one-out relievers, re-fashioning his lineup on a daily basis or choosing to bat the pitcher eighth. What ultimately bothers me about La Russa is the fact that the man is a tiresome grump and a hypocrite who has repeatedly shown a lack of patience for developing young players who don’t come readymade for success.

Will wrote of La Russa’s beliefs in his 1990 book: “La Russa’s mantra is that the four important things in baseball, in order of importance, are: play hard, win, make money and have fun.” Spoken like a true lawyer. Notice that “have fun” is the least important. To La Russa, having fun is a byproduct of playing hard and winning. (So is making money.) That’s evident to anyone who has ever watched the Cardinals over a consistent period of time. The skipper’s intense focus and at times ruthless desire to maintain the upper hand are well documented.

Those traits have doomed him on numerous occasions in his tenure atop the Cardinals. Look no further than his never-ending spat with Scott Rolen, at the time one of his best players, who, oddly enough, shared La Russa’s intensity. Now, Rolen owns a share of the blame for the pair’s falling out, but it’s the manager’s responsibility, one would think, to take the high road and eventually end the fight in a manner that would allow the player to continue to play for the team. In this case, La Russa remained stubbornly combative, and Rolen was dealt last offseason to the Blue Jays.

Then there is La Russa’s continual bitching about his treatment by the St. Louis media, which at times has dared to question the skipper’s handling of situations. Those who bother to read the Post-Dispatch or listen to the Cardinals broadcasters are aware that one would be hard-pressed to find a bigger group of Homers. Still, those fuzzy-wuzzy media types have, on occasion, pointed out that La Russa’s tenacity has an ability to overwhelm his team, forcing a tension upon the clubhouse that all but suffocates the fun right out the environment.

La Russa has also allowed his desire to seem correct in his decision-making to, at times, get the best of his reason. I praise the man for having been one of the earliest skippers to embrace statistical analysis, as outlined in Met at Work. But as his career has worn on and statistical analysis has seen its rapid, secular expansion in baseball, Tony has become a bit of a curmudgeonly traitor, choosing to neglect obvious statistics when they don’t make his case for him. His once analytical mind has progressively become a mechanism as likely to support the gut as the brain. In other words, he often turns into a typical big league manager, more concerned with getting his way than doing what’s right. Which, in turn, leads me to my final point.

La Russa has failed, time and time again, to develop a significant number of young players, a task that requires patience and a certain flexibility and willingness to accept failure. Much ado is made of the veteran reclamation projects that have turned into success stories under La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, but far less is made of the up-and-coming pitchers whose careers were ruined or severely sidetracked under the tutelage of Tony. The list, just going back to his debut with the Redbirds in 1996, is a long one and includes Alan Benes, Donovan Osbourne, (to a lesser degree) Matt Morris, Jose Jimenez, Bud Smith, Jason Marquis, Brad Thompson, Anthony Reyes and, most significantly, Rick Ankiel.

While young pitchers often flame out for a variety of reasons beyond their handling by the managerial staff, the lack of young pitching talent that has developed under La Russa can best be summarized as startling. It’s a trend that has become more prominent as of late, with La Russa showing increasing signs of favor for mediocre veterans with no upside (say Sidney Ponson, Jeff Weaver, Braden Looper, Mike Maroth or Kip Wells) instead of younger, cheaper pitchers with promise (namely, Reyes). I fault La Russa’s preference for consistently challenging his youthful players rather than showing a nurturing touch.

La Russa is a surefire, first-ticket Hall of Famer and one of the game’s more committed competitors. But to overstate the man’s positive impact on his team’s winning ways is a bit maddening to me, especially given how obviously flawed he tends to be. I haven’t even broached the subject of his support of a clubhouse culture of performance-enhancing drugs, or his 2007 drunk-driving arrest that started a drug-induced downward spiral for the Cardinals. Or, the fact that his 2006 team won the World Series in spite of its manager’s stubbornness and personnel mistakes.

The more service time La Russa racks up, the more steadfastly he latches onto his worst traits and the more defensive he becomes. One thing is clear to me: Either Will was too in love with his subject matter to comprehend its flaws, or La Russa has simply changed drastically from the portrait sketched by Will 18 years ago.

I suspect it’s a lot of both, unfortunately.

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