Postseason Not Kind to Tony La Russa
La Russa is the best manager Iíve watched closely over an extended time. (Billy Martin was the best for a short period, but he always self-destructed after a time.)
He brings an intensity to his managing that is more like a football coach than a baseball manager, and that intensity has been transferred to his players. He won three pennants and four divisional titles in Oakland. With the Cardinals, heís won five divisional titles and one pennant, with a possibility remaining for a second pennant. At the start of his career, he managed the Chicago White Sox to a divisional title. Overall, he stands third all-time for managerial wins.
He took over a struggling A's team at idseason in 1986, and by 1988, his second full season, the Aís won 104 games. The Aís farm system supplied outstanding talent, as the Aís won three consecutive Rookie of the Year awards with Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss, and Sandy Alderson made some astute trades, but it was La Russa who drove the team to success, with his energy and intelligence.
La Russa did a complete job of organizing the team. All managers like to talk about open competition in spring training, but La Russa actually followed through on that promise. He judged players only by what he saw, not by their reputation. The best example is Dave Henderson, who had been discarded by other teams, most recently the Giants, because his reputation was as an inconsistent player who didnít work very hard. La Russa told Henderson he would get his shot Ė but only if he played and practiced hard. Henderson did, and he became one of the team stars.
Tony and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who went with him to St. Louis, did a remarkable job in resuscitating the careers of veteran pitchers who seemed through. The best example, of course, is Dennis Eckersley, whose career as a starter had nose-dived but who was made into a great closer, paving the way for his eventual election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sometimes, La Russa went against the book with his moves. Rick Honeycutt, another former starter who worked well in relief for the Aís, was usually used against left-handed hitters, but with a fast runner on first, La Russa would sometimes use the left-handed Honeycutt against a right-handed hitter because Honeycuttís move to first would keep that runner anchored.
La Russa also set the formula for modern pitching staffs, with a pitcher for the seventh inning, a setup man for the eighth and a closer who would come in at the start of the ninth if the Aís had the lead. Of course, he had the right pitchers for those roles, with the help of Duncan and Alderson. Other managers have followed that formula with lesser pitchers, which doesnít work well.
But for all La Russaís success in the regular season, his teams havenít done well in the World Series. The Aís were the best team in baseball for three years in the 1988-90 stretch but won only one Series in that time, the 1989 ďEarthquake SeriesĒ when they swept the Giants. Kirk Gibsonís home run shocked them in the first game in 1988, and an inferior Dodgers team beat them. In 1990, the Aís came in with swelled heads and were swept by the Cincinnati Reds.
That World Series pattern has been extended in St. Louis. Last year, the Cardinals won 105 regular season games but were swept by the Boston Red Sox, who won an unprecedented eight straight games to win the American League pennant and then the World Series.
LA RUSSA has company in his postseason misery: Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
If a poll were taken among baseball people, I believe Cox would probably be considered the best manager in baseball. His Braves have won an amazing 14 straight divisional titles (they were second in the division in 1994 when the season was shut down by the dreadful strike/lockout).
This year may have been Coxís best. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Braves, but they came together early and won their division again.
But, as with La Russa, Coxís regular season success hasnít carried over to the postseason. In five tries, Cox has won only one World Series, in six games over Cleveland in 1995. The last time his team got to the World Series, 1999, the Braves were swept by the Yankees.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have Joe Altobelli. With the Giants, Altobelli was the worst manager Iíve watched up close. He had absolutely no clue. Yet, when he went to Baltimore, Altobelli won a World Series in 1983, the only time he managed in one.
Why do good managers lose and bad ones win in the postseason? In part, itís because the game changes.
During the regular season, pitching depth is vital because teams want to get strong outings from at least their first four starters. A team that has a fairly reliable fifth starter will usually win titles. In the postseason, the quality of the top three starters is what counts; the Diamondbacks won in 2001 with basically only two pitchers, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who were overpowering.
Also, in football, each regular season game means something, so coaches and players approach every game with a single-minded intensity. Thatís the same attitude that prevails in the postseason, so you donít often get big upsets. In baseball, consistency is important, because you donít win big ups and downs during the 162-game season. In the postseason, every game is important, so it takes a much different approach.
I canít speak for Cox, because Iíve never observed him regularly, but with La Russa, Iíve felt his regular season approach is so intense, he wears his players out. They canít step up their game because theyíve already done it for 162 games. La Russa didnít back off this year, either, playing his regulars down the stretch, even though the Cardinals had long since clinched the pennant.
This season, many people have thought that La Russa had to win the World Series or lose his job. He even alluded to that himself in interviews with reporters this week. But the Cardinals may not even make it. They came back from the brink of elimination on an Albert Pujols homer last night and now return home for the rest of the series, but the Astros have Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens ready. The quality of your starters, remember.
MANAGERS ARE judged by the overall quality of their leadership, not a handful of games in October, so both Cox and La Russa will eventually make the Hall of Fame.
But Iíll bet both men would love to have at least one more World Series championship to list on their plaques.
TOMORROW: I just learned (2:30) that Bill King has died. I'd known and admired Bill since I first came to the Chronicle in 1963. I'll be writing my memories of him for Wednesday.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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