Tony La Russa is simply the best manager I’ve known, and his final act was his best: Taking a team that was 10½ games out in the wild card race to a triumph in the World Series. Can’t top that.
La Russa also had a powerful influence on the way the game is played. With the A’s in the ’80s, he pioneered the idea of having one reliever for the seventh inning, another for the eighth and a closer who came in at the start of the ninth inning.
The game hasn’t been the same since. The traditionalists, many of them in the media, deplore the fact that few pitchers throw complete games now, but other managers saw that La Russa’s style was more efficient than the old one.
And, Tony went even beyond that in the recent World Series with the way he managed his bullpen brilliantly to overcome the Texas Rangers.
When La Russa came to Oakland in midseason 1986, the A’s were floundering. Billy Martin had self-destructed. Steve Boros and Jackie Martin were nice guys but overmatched as managers.
With general manager Sandy Alderson making astute trades, most notably the ones for pitcher Bob Welch and getting Rickey Henderson back from the Yankees in 1989, La Russa went to work putting a team together. He and pitching coach Dave Duncan resurrected the careers of Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt. Stewart had been 0-6 the year before he came to the A’s but he became their big-game pitcher. Eckersley and Honeycutt were both considered to be washed up, but La Russa and Duncan reasoned that they could be effective in more limited roles. Honeycutt became the seventh-inning pitcher and Eckersley became a dynamic force as the closer, winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards one year.
As the A’s added power hitters Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire through the draft, they had a three-year stretch during which they won 104, 99 and 103 games in the regular season.
Many writers disliked La Russa because he did not suffer fools gladly. He often commented to me that some writers “want me to write their stories for them” by asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think of your team, Tony?”
In contrast, I had a great rapport with La Russa because I asked specific questions and, in turn, often got lengthy answers. It was like taking a course in Baseball 1A.
At that time, the A’s were in the forefront of the computer revolution, using the new statistics being developed by Bill James and his followers, to be more efficient on the field and in evaluating prospects. It was a mind-blowing time for those of us who were open to new ideas and not rooted in the past.
When the A’s had to go to a youth movement in the ’90s, Alderson advised Tony to leave. La Russa was all about winning, not developing players, and he continued to win in St. Louis.
His style was unique among managers I’ve known, as intense as a football coach. It was obviously a successful one, and I feel privileged to have known him.
Making his mark
Tony La Russa’s career numbers as a manager:
2,365 wins (third all-time)
6 World Series appearances
3 World Series titles
3 Manager of the Year awards