Baseball may be in the rear-view-mirror, but there was a managerial hiring last week that deserves comment.
It does, because it involves one of the greatest of all-time.
Tony LaRussa, 76, was named manager of the Chicago White Sox.
The move was a curious one, met with criticism on several fronts.
There is no argument as to his legacy.
He is a Hall-of-Farmer who is the third winningest manager of all time.
His teams have won three World Series titles, six league championships and 12 division crowns, with the White Sox, Oakland A’s and the St. Louis Cardinals. He’s been named Manager of the Year four times.
This will be his second tour of duty with the White Sox, having begun his managerial career back in 1979.
That was well before the young, exciting, and promising players he will inherit on the White Sox were born.
He has been a senior advisor for several clubs in recent years, and was The Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, and the venture proved unsuccessful.
La Russa hasn’t been in the dugout since 2011.
It should be pointed out that Jack McKeon led the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship at the age of 72.
But baseball has changed considerably since then, and since La Russa last piloted a team.
It is a game where analytics have largely taken over.
It is now a game where statistics, and data, determine in-game moves.
Experience in the sport, the time spent in the minor leagues, general baseball know-how have given way to Ivy League graduates who are immersed in mathematics, and information.
From what I see, it’s a game of home run, strikeout, or base on balls.
Launch angle, exit velocity and common terms in today’s game.
The beauty of a sacrifice bunt, or a hit-and-run, or advancing runners, is largely a thing of the past.
When the home run derby, held the night before the annual All-Star game became more popular than the game itself, I saw trouble.
There are a couple of other changes.
When batters hit long drives, they stand at home plate, admiring their effort, failing to run. Often, the ball they hit fails to leave the park for a home run, and the batter winds up on first base, when he could have advanced to second base with ease.
Hitters often flip their bats, or pose, or put on a show that says, “look at me”.
I regard those actions as a sign of the times, much like the celebrating football players engage in, after scoring touchdowns, making interceptions or sacking quarterbacks.
You may or may not like them, but they’re here to stay.
In the final game of the 2020 World Series, manager Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays removed his pitcher, Blake Snell in the sixth inning against the Dodgers, with the Rays leading 1-0. Snell was pitching a shutout, he had thrown only 76 pitches, he had struck out nine and was in total command.
But out he came.
You know the rest of the story. The Dodgers jumped on reliever Nick Anderson who allowed two runs wiping out the Rays lead and LA eventually won 3-1 to win the Series in six games.
The move by Cash was in the biggest spotlight of all in baseball, but it’s become common throughout baseball for many years.
Pitch counts, avoiding facing hitters for a third time in game, and the practice of going to the bullpen numerous times, is standard operating procedure.
It’s all about statistics, probability, and information.
That’s brings us back to Tony LaRussa, who I got to know well when he managed in Oakland, and I was one of their announcers.
We stayed in touch when he moved on to St.Louis and I broadcast many of the Cardinals’ games for Fox and TBS both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Interestingly enough, LaRussa was a devotee of information surrounding players and game situations. He also was one of the first to change pitchers quicker than most skippers.
But the one thing that made Tony LaRussa a brilliant baseball manager was his feel for the game.
Standing in the dugout, he could sense situations better than most.
He had an instinct of what his players could accomplish, or not accomplish.
He always looked ahead to who his pitcher might face three innings ahead, and which hitters on his team would be coming to the plate.
So, when LaRussa was named the new manager of a young, new-age, talented team on the cusp of greatness, the questions of his age, and ability to lead a team in today’s baseball arose.
Here’s what I think.
Tony LaRussa is not an old-school figure who can’t adjust to the present.
He understands the exuberance of young players.
But he will never tolerate a lack of hustle, and admiring instead of running.
He will employ all the information given to him, and use it when and where it fits.
I don’t think he will manage the home run, strikeout, and base on balls style of game we see exclusive of his time-honored style of winning his way.
I think we will see Tony LaRussa use the feel for personnel and game situations that has won for him in the past.
I think we will see a flexible skipper.
Tony has said, “my heart has always been in the dugout”.
That’s where he belongs.
And the White Sox are fortunate to have him right there.
Even at 76.