Somehow Tony La Russa went from the most technologically adept manger in baseball to a guy who in the end couldn’t work a phone, a land line no less.
La Russa evolved from the whiz kid that an old-school baseball announcer ragged about, to an old-school baseball guy who was taking small jabs at a movie about whiz kids in baseball.
It happened in the blink of an eye. OK, not really. It was a third of a century.
La Russa called it quits Monday after 33 years, three days after he won his third World Series as a manager. He said it is for good. He leaves in third place on the career victories list for managers, 35 short of John McGraw.
Everything changes, except the color of La Russa’s hair (we suspect he had help from a bottle), still black and worn in that page boy/modified mullet. Times change and people change. And of course perceptions change.
With La Russa, the perception was what changed most of all.
La Russa was 34 when he was hired as manger of the Chicago White Sox in the middle of the 1979 season. He had been a career minor-leaguer, who played in short stints with the A’s, Braves and Cubs over six seasons .
He was a baseball lifer who had prepared better than almost anyone in the game for a life outside baseball, earning a law degree. He had a fallback, but he never needed it.
Still the law degree probably helped him land his first big league manager’s gig, given his short and rather unimpressive resume as a minor league manager. Bill Veeck owned the White Sox then. Veeck had once sent a midget to bat; he knew a good hook when saw one. Here, was a young guy who was so smart he could be practicing law.
As is often the case with young, inexperienced managers, especially ones who weren’t successful as players, La Russa didn’t get along with the team’s star. Only on the White Sox of the 1970s, the star wasn’t a player.
Harry Caray was the play-by-play announcer for the White Sox during the 1970s and by most accounts the only reason to follow the White Sox during a lean decade.
The Harry Caray that most sports fans are familiar with, the benign, beer-swilling, unabashed cheerleader for the home team who mangled Latino players’ names, the one the Rangers’ Derek Holland imitated during the Game 5 telecast of the World Series — that was Caray with the Cubs.
With the Sox, Caray also swilled beer, but he was a sharp-tongued every man who rooted for the home team and wasn’t afraid to complain about the players or their manager or even ownership.
He complained about La Russa from the beginning, saying Veeck was too cheap to hire a real manager.
When Veeck sold the team to Jerry Reinsdorf, Reinsdorf kept La Russa.
“Harry has done a lot to undermine Tony,” Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune in 1982. “He (Caray) has a great following. He’s caused Tony a problem, a problem he’ll overcome only by winning.”
Maybe Caray didn’t understand things, such as La Russa’s use of relievers. He is generally credited with being the first to use specialists for each inning late in the game.
Though Reinsdorf thought Caray was undermining his manager, the owner had no intention of letting the announcer go.
Caray left anyway after that season, taking a pay cut to go the Cubs. His prime reason was the White Sox were switching their televised games to a pay channel, and Caray didn’t want to abandon his blue-collar audience.
Caray still continued to take shots at La Russa, complaining that Sox management was always lobbying him to sell La Russa to the audience.
The next season La Russa guided the White Sox to the postseason for the first time in 24 years.
La Russa had a little technological advantage. The White Sox were one of two teams that subscribed to a computerized stat service. The other team was the Oakland A’s, and their Luddite manager, Billy Martin, wanted nothing do with computers.
The White Sox got off to a slow start in 1986, and La Russa was shown the door. It took him less than three weeks to find a new job.
La Russa landed in Oakland, where he guided the A’s to three American League pennants and a World Series.
Conservative pundit George Will went behind the scenes with Tony La Russa for his 1990 bestseller on baseball “Men at Work.” Will detailed how La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan used spreadsheets and stats they gleaned from a portable computer to gain an edge on the competition.
With his success and love of technology, La Russa was a natural as the front man for a “Tony La Russa Baseball” a computer game that was a big seller in the 1990s.
La Russa left the A’s after the 1995 season and went to St, Louis. The Cardinals went to the playoffs four of his first seven seasons. In 2003, when the Cardinals were scuffling, another writer wanted to go behind the scenes with La Russa.
In “3 Nights in August,” Buzz Bissinger, the author of “Friday Night Lights,” portrayed La Russa as more of an old school manager, who relied on index cards and hunches.
At the height of the sabermetrics revolution, Tony La Russa seemed to have lost his digital mojo.
At least that was sometimes the perception. Remember, all laptops and cell phones are banned from the field. La Russa kept pertinent stats on those index cards.
Old school or not, La Russa’s Cardinals kept winning. They went to the World Series in 2004 and won it in 2006.
And his innovating days were not over. He raised eyebrows the past few years by often batting his pitcher eighth because statistical analysis showed that would be better.
La Russa liked to play up his new-found old school image. During this postseason he poked fun at the “Moneyball,” praising the movie only for being well-acted. He jokingly made up made a cockamamie formula for whether he would play Lance Berkman in left field or right field.
Finally there was the World Series Game 5 mixup with relief pitchers. La Russa said he and the bullpen coach couldn’t get the right relievers warming up because the crowd noise was so loud that they couldn’t clearly communicate on the phone.
The phone! The device Alexander Graham Bell invented the same year the National League started. La Russa, who invented the modern bullpen, couldn’t talk to his modern bullpen because he is now such a dinosaur that he couldn’t use the phone. At least that’s how some writers framed it.
And his inability to use a phone would have been his legacy, or at least the last chapter, if the Cardinals had lost the Series. Just as Harry’s taunts would have been his legacy if the White Sox or A’s never won.
But the Cards won and the Sox won and the A’s won, whether he was playing hunches or playing by the numbers. Which is why La Russa will go to the Hall of Fame.