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Monday, October 31, 2011
Tony La Russa combined old and new

By Tim Keown

There's a certain poetic justice to Tony La Russa's decision to retire after winning the World Series with a team that had no business winning one. There aren't many gaps in the man's résumé, but his third title filled one. He won when he should have won (1989), he lost when he should have won ('88 and '90), and now he's decided to walk away after a season in which he won the World Series in the most improbable manner. You could say 2011 cemented a legacy that dried and hardened years ago.

Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa's experiments, including the Ariel Prieto pitching arrangement, didn't always work out.

If you're looking to view the past 33 years of Major League Baseball through the eyes of one man, La Russa is the perfect tour guide. His old-school sensibilities (don't cross the man and expect it to be forgotten -- ever) meshed with the new-world thought processes to produce a dugout professor of Scholarly Medievalism.

He was a stat guy without being all wonky about it, redefining bullpen use in the late-1980s with a typically detailed, nearly compulsive precision. It was Gene Nelson for all or part of the eighth, Rick Honeycutt for a lefty or two and Dennis Eckersley to finish.

La Russa was willing to attempt the unconventional -- in some cases, the antithetical -- to get more out of his roster. Hitting the pitcher eighth in the lineup is destined to become the hallmark of his tradition-tweaking, but I'll fondly remember the "pod system" he briefly employed with a seriously flawed Oakland pitching staff in the mid-'90s. Instead of designating a starting pitcher, La Russa designated three pitchers for each game with the intention of coaxing three innings out of each. It didn't work, and it didn't last -- Doug Johns, John Wasdin and Ariel Prieto had something to do with that -- but it exemplified La Russa's congenital inability to fail conventionally.

And, before we get too sentimental, he presided over an Oakland team that became a traveling pharmaceutical show. He came away from that relatively unscathed, professing to know nothing and rarely being pressed. Like the commissioner and everyone else who was not directly implicated, La Russa escaped baseball's Great Drug War with a shrug and a how-was-I-supposed-to-know? After all, nobody expected him to join Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in one of the dugout bathroom stalls. It was probably cramped with the two of them.

La Russa/Canseco
Tony La Russa was unconcerned by the changing physiques of players such as Jose Canseco.

Which brings up another of La Russa's qualities: intense loyalty. (In fact, when discussing La Russa's qualities, it's understood that intense is the adjective of choice.) McGwire is the most obvious example. La Russa shepherded McGwire's public reintroduction, and it's not an exaggeration to assume that his prodding changed the man's life. Five years ago, it seemed unlikely that McGwire would ever appear in public. Now it's entirely possible he could end up working for another manager, in St. Louis or elswhere. That's nothing short of remarkable, and it has a lot to do with La Russa.

There's no doubt that La Russa could transition upstairs to the general manager's office if he felt the urge. Back before blogs and Twitter made instant news the scourge of baseball writing, La Russa's inside-baseball conversations became legendary among beat writers. His legacy exceeded the margins of the field.

One afternoon in the summer of 1995, when I worked in the Bay Area, La Russa and I began talking in the A's dugout. I don't remember the specifics, but I remember it was a baseball conversation that roamed wildly and never ceased to be fascinating. It started about 90 minutes before game time, and somehow I found myself still sitting next to La Russa 15 minutes before the first pitch, at least 30 minutes after I was supposed to have been unceremoniously swept from the premises.

Nobody wanted to tell Tony to kick me out. I was aware of the time -- to the point of avoiding eye contact with nearby security dudes -- but figured I'd ride it out as long as Tony would allow. Only when the PA announcer began announcing the starting lineups did La Russa say, "Damn, I've got a game to manage. You better get out of here." He was so intensely focused on talking about baseball that it was like he awoke from a trance.

McGwire and La Russa
Mark McGwire and others benefited from Tony La Russa's loyalty.

That was the George Will side of La Russa, the engaging, analytical side that allowed him to give the flowery baseball valedictory address. It was partly a lie, though, because La Russa the baseball man was far less complicated. The guy who cavorted with the baseball-as-metaphor-for-life crowd had an equally strong dark side, the one that held Olympian grudges against players and managers who did his guys wrong. At times he was blinded by competitiveness. He could venge -- in the most archaic, medieval sense of the word -- with the best of them. His feud with Dusty Baker, which ignited one of the worst brawls in history between the Cardinals and Reds in 2010, is the defining managerial rivarly of its time.

La Russa leaves with the third-most wins of any manager, but it's hard to envision him being remembered primarily for winning. It sounds crazy to say a guy with 2,728 wins could have won more, but he'd probably agree. Then again, logic dictates that he shouldn't have won this year, but he did. And so he goes out in a way that fits his career: intensely, defying easy analysis.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Sound off to Tim here.