Appreciating the Career of Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa himself wasn’t much of a ballplayer. The middle infielder hit .199 in 203 Major League plate appearances, toiling in the minors for most of his 16-year career in professional baseball.

Maybe it was all that time on the bench that prepared La Russa for his managerial career. Because his teams seemed to over-perform from day one, beginning in 1979 when he inherited the 46-60 White Sox and led them to a 27-27 finish. Four years later Chicago made the playoffs for the first time in 24 years with the franchise’s best winning percentage since 1920, and La Russa won his first Manager of the Year award.

The White Sox’s early season struggles in 1986 prompted La Russa’s mid-season firing, but the skipper didn’t stay jobless for long. Only three weeks after being kicked out of Chicago, he was hired to manage his former team, the Oakland A’s, and immediately turned them around, just as he had the White Sox seven years earlier. 31-52 when La Russa took over, the A’s finished the season with a 45-34 run under their new manager.

And thus began the glory days of managing for La Russa, who announced his retirement today. La Russa’s Athletics almost immediately posted one of the most dominant three-season stretches of all-time, winning the AL West in 1988, 1989 and 1990, averaging 102 wins during that time and reaching the World Series each year.

Leading this mini-dynasty were Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, perennial Cy Young award candidates Dave Stewart and Bob Welch, future Hall-of-Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, and of course La Russa, who won another Manager of the Year award in ’88, then finished 3rd in the voting in ’89 and 2nd in ’90.

The 1989 A’s team, probably the weakest of the three great Oakland squads, was the only one to find success in the Fall Classic, sweeping their cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants, in a World Series most remembered for the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that delayed Game 3 ten days. It was La Russa’s first World Series championship and his only in Oakland.

After a down 1991 season, the A’s bounced back to win the AL West again in 1992, and La Russa won his third Manager of the Year award. He would last three more seasons with the A’s, before the death of the team’s owner and the subsequent sale of the franchise prompted La Russa to bolt to St. Louis to manage the Cardinals.

It took only one season for La Russa to turn the 4th place Cardinals into an NL Central-winning squad, and despite a few down seasons to close the 20th century, St. Louis soon established itself as the perennial favorite in its division, finishing above .500 all but one year from 2000 to the present and earning six Central division titles during that time. In 2002 La Russa won his record-setting fourth Manager of the Year award (Bobby Cox has since tied that mark).

Arguably La Russa’s best Cardinals team, the 105-game winning 2004 squad, was swept out of the World Series, and the ’05 version lost in a seven-game NLCS. The 2006 Cards were worse than their predecessors by nearly every measure, but, despite only 83 regular season wins, unexpectedly brought La Russa his second World Series title.

This year’s Cardinals were not expected to deliver their manager championship number three. Ace Adam Wainwright was sent for Tommy John surgery after an injury in February, out for the year before throwing a single pitch. Closer Ryan Franklin blew four of his first five save opportunities, Albert Pujols battled a sluggish start, Matt Holliday struggled to stay on the field, and St. Louis trailed wild card-leading Atlanta by 10.5 games on August 24.

But with a bullpen rebuilt at the trade deadline and a newly-healthy offense, the Cardinals stormed back to clinch the playoffs on the season’s final day. In the NLDS, they upset the heavily-favored Phillies in five games. In the NLCS they handled the Brewers in six games, La Russa hailed as genius for his courage in pulling starting pitchers early in ballgames and his subsequent manipulation of his bullpen in the mid- and late-innings.

La Russa’s sixth World Series was an up-and-down one for the manager. Bullpenphonegate, as the Game 5 debacle came to be known, threatened to undermine La Russa’s successes and establish him as the series’ goat, but an all-time classic game 6—in which La Russa made no glaring errors and his counterpart Ron Washington orchestrated blunder after blunder—and a well-managed game 7 gave La Russa’s Cardinals another World Series championship.

Tony La Russa may from time to time appear whiny, stubborn or petulant. But you can’t argue with results, and with six pennants and three World Series titles in his 33 years as a Major League manager, the 67-year old is one of the most decorated skippers in baseball history. He’s third all-time in managerial wins and one of only two managers ever to win the World Series in each league. Where he ranks among the all-time greats is a discussion for another post, but in the wake of a World Series run during which he was praised repeatedly for his leadership and decision-making, we should all pause to admire the career accomplishments of Tony La Russa.

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