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November 10, 2011
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November 10, 2011

The Man Who Never Stops Managing


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BASEBALL, WE ARE TOLD, IS A GAME of the long season. Good teams lose a lot. Bad teams win a lot. The people who live baseball lives grow to understand this, grow to appreciate that you can't get too high or too low, that you have to let go, that the only way to survive in this crazy game is to, as baseball managers have said countless times, turn the page. So: How do you explain Tony La Russa? He cannot turn the page. He cannot let go. Change the pitcher. Send in the pinch hitter. Start the runner. For 33 years, the last 16 in St. Louis, Tony La Russa has tinkered and toyed and pinch-hit and visited mounds and squeezed every last drop of juice he could out of baseball games. He has hit his pitchers eighth. He has initiated not only countless double switches but also triple switches, even occasional quadruple switches. He has managed every game to win. Every game, even the obviously lost ones, even the seemingly insignificant ones. No, he has not managed, he has coached—like a football coach. This is usually the path to an early retirement. La Russa endures.

This 2011 Cardinals team, in so many ways, is the perfect symbol of La Russa's career. The Cardinals were 10½ games out of a playoff spot in late August, this after losing a dismal 7--0 game to the Pirates, dropping their record to a bland 69--64. The Cardinals were so clearly a mediocre baseball team, and this had been expected ever since spring training when their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, had undergone Tommy John surgery and was declared out for the season.

But La Russa simply doesn't look at it that way. He has never looked at it that way. In 1979 he was hired by the floundering White Sox as a manager at age 34 after a rocky baseball playing career that is probably best summed up with his batting average: .199. He was not quite good enough to hit .200, and his hiring was widely viewed as a cut-rate signing by a team that didn't care.

La Russa admits he was raw as a manager. But he was out there to win every single night. Change the pitcher. Send in the pinch hitter. Start the runner. In his fourth full season he led the White Sox to their first postseason appearance in more than two decades. And when he was fired, in 1986, he was immediately hired by the A's. And after just two years he led the A's to three consecutive American League pennants.

All the while, his will and personality drove him to win every single game. Change the pitcher. Send in the pinch hitter. Start the runner. He understood, of course, that it was impossible to win them all, that baseball isn't the sort of game that you can conquer. And yet he could never quite convince himself of that. He managed games with fury—with La Russa, the right move was always some move, a hit-and-run, a pitching change, a lineup adjustment.

If he has had success—he has now won three World Series and appeared in 14 postseasons—there have been baseball heartbreaks for him as well. There was Kirk Gibson's homer in the 1988 World Series, spurring the Dodgers' upset of his A's. His Oakland team was swept by the Reds in the Series in 1990. In '96 his Cardinals blew a three-games-to-one lead against the Braves in the National League Championship Series. But he never stopped pushing. All the while he kept guerrilla-managing because that was what he knew and that was what burned inside.

And so, no matter the record in August, he just expected the 2011 Cardinals to start winning. Three days after that low point against the Pirates, La Russa managed one of his patented games, complete with five pitchers and two defensive replacements, and the Cardinals beat the Brewers 2--1. They were off. St. Louis would go 21--8 down the stretch, getting eight of those wins by one run. Meanwhile, the Braves—who seemed to have the wild-card spot wrapped up—collapsed. It was absurd to everyone but La Russa.

"I keep telling you guys," he said to the assembled media. "In baseball you don't know. That's the beauty of this thing." And that was the beauty. The Cardinals were overwhelming underdogs against the Phillies, and St. Louis lost the first game 11--6. But La Russa used seven pitchers in Game 2, and the Cardinals held on for a one-run win. He used a mere six pitchers in their win in Game 4. And in the decisive Game 5 he only used one, Chris Carpenter, and the Cardinals squeezed out a 1--0 victory.

So many of the great managers tend to let the games happen, let their players play. That's the sensible way. That's how Bobby Cox managed, for instance. That just isn't La Russa. He has to impose his team's will on the game, and that means he has to impose his own will on the game. The Cardinals beat the Brewers in six games in this year's NLCS, and then came a crazy World Series, a wild one, a World Series in which La Russa would make perfect moves and spectacularly bad ones. In this World Series, La Russa would fail to get a pitcher in the game because of some miscommunication across the dugout-bullpen phone line. But in the next game La Russa's Cardinals would twice come back after being one strike from elimination.

Being a baseball manager is frustrating not because of what you can do but because of what you can't. You can't call timeout, not really. You can't design plays, not really. You can't bring a player back into the game. You don't have a halftime to regroup. You develop an atmosphere, and you deal with problems, and you can do a few strategic things here and there that have an excellent chance of failing even if they are the best moves you can make. But in the end, as Sparky Anderson once said, the game is too big to manage.

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