Cardinals' Manager La Russa Goes Out On Top

Guest

Mike Pesca, sports correspondent, NPR

Days after leading his team to a 7th game win in the World Series, Tony La Russa has announced that he has retired. La Russa changed the game of baseball and is among the top managers in the Major Leagues. Over his 33-year career, he won the world series three times.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Tony La Russa's going out on top. Just three days after he led the St. Louis Cardinals to a dramatic World Series triumph, the longtime manager today announced plans to retire. He leaves the game with three championships, 2,728 victories, third on the all-time list and can start writing his acceptance speech for the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York. Mike, nice to have you back.

MIKE PESCA: Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And Tony La Russa goes out a World Series hero. But, Mike, take us back to last Thursday night when it looked like he was going to be the World Series goat.

PESCA: Yes. He had the genius strategy of saying, let's get to one out from elimination twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: But it worked out for him. And that's one of the truths about managing. Tony La Russa is a great manager. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame certainly. Third all-time as you say. If he came back and just managed a month or two, he would certainly pass John McGraw as the second winningest manager of all time.

CONAN: And a decade or two and he might get to Connie Mack.

PESCA: That's right. And that - so that's quite a bit to chew off. But managing in baseball has - of all the major sports, a baseball manager has less impact in the team's overall wins and losses than a football coach or a basketball coach - certainly at the college level, probably at the pro level - and maybe it's equivalent of a hockey coach. Managers make big moves that we all look at late in games and they decide which relief pitchers to bring in or if to bring in a relief pitcher. And with Tony La Russa, the answer was almost always yes.

CONAN: Bring the hook.

PESCA: Yeah. But, you know, experts who've studied it - and this is a harder thing to do than to figure out how important a player is - say that managers, a great manager over an average manager over the course of a season might be responsible for one or two extra wins. But there is that ineffable thing and it's not just myth, I think, that a good manager sets a tone and you want to play for a good manager. And Tony La Russa also had those qualities of a good manager.

CONAN: He also innovated - as you suggest, he was always quick with the hook, but with a purpose, he changed the role of relief pitchers late in ball games. If games are running longer than they used to, you can blame, in part, Tony La Russa.

PESCA: It is among the reasons. Although I do think if you just made those batters get out of the - get in to batter's box and stop adjusting the equipment, it would more than make up for Tony La Russa's innovations, which actually have something to do with the outcome of the game. The LOOGYs, which I'm sure you know, but maybe not everyone does, stands for the lefty one-out guy, so L-O-O-G. There are many LOOGYs in baseball, you know, a very extreme specialist who's get - who's called in to just pitch to one batter and get him out. That's not a Tony La Russa innovation, but he certainly popularized the LOOGY. There are, you know, dozens of players who owe their entire livelihoods to Tony La Russa.

He - this last World Series saw more pitching changes than had ever been seen in a World Series, and he set that record well before there was even a Game 7. So La Russa was a tinkerer with the bullpen. He was a very active manager. He would always make a decision instead of not making a decision, and sometimes not making a decision is the right thing. So you always notice Tony La Russa managing but still, he was much more successful than not.

CONAN: Back in the Oakland A's days though, didn't he have a clear role in defining the closer with Dennis Eckersley?

PESCA: Right. Now he had a great pitcher in Eckersley who used to be starter, but he said, we're going to go to you and not only because you're the best pitcher for one or two innings but because you have the mental comportment to close out the games. And not withstanding Kirk Gibson's very dramatic homerun even though it came in Game 1 of that World Series, that was a turning point, and Gibson got that homerun off of Eckersley. Eckersley was the dominant closer in the game.

Rollie Fingers, others had closed out games and been - and served in that role, but it was really Eckersley who was going to be this ninth inning slam-the-door guy. Now you forget that someone even thought of that. It just seems like, oh, that's the way baseball goes, like four balls and three strikes. But that's not the case and La Russa had a lot to do with that.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR correspondent Mike Pesca, just back from covering the World Series. If you've been in a cave somewhere, it was the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games over the Texas Rangers, and Game 6 was a classic for the ages as the Cardinals twice came back, once in the ninth inning down to their last strike, two runs behind. Then again, in the 10th down to their last strike, two runs behind, tied it up both times and won it in the 11th off the bat of the eventual MVP. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

PESCA: Yeah. David Freese put it out there.

CONAN: And, Mike Pesca, as you look at Tony La Russa's - the game before that, he makes a call to the bullpen to tell them to get a pitcher up, and it turns out, for some reason, they get up the wrong pitcher. He goes out to the mound and brings in the guy they've had warming up - the wrong guy - and has him do what is unheard of in baseball, issue an intentional walk, four pitches outside of the strike zone, removes him to get the next pitcher who's the wrong pitcher again.

PESCA: Right. Now, we talked about specialists, but the intentional walk relief guy specialist has not been invented. That was a mistake. So Tony La Russa's explanation for this was the crowd in Texas was so loud, I said get up. Get up, Motte, and they heard Lynn. They heard the guy who we're talking about, Lance Lynn, who issued that intentional walk. It was just a miscommunication. Lynn was not supposed to pitch that game. I guess Tony La Russa is such an acclaimed figure, or at least he rules with an iron fist that no one said, Tony, Lynn? That doesn't make sense. We already talked about Lynn not pitching today.

CONAN: Not available today.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. I actually went out after that press conference where people were scratching their heads and, really, it was quite a press conference because the reporters were just asking, wait, wait, wait. You got to go over this again, Tony. You called and asked for a pitcher, and you got the wrong one. And then you asked for him again, and you still got the wrong one. He went through it. And I went out to the bullpen and I examined the phone. I thought maybe I could find some technological thing wrong. It was actually a solid phone, like the kind they used to have all over the public streets, nice, silver job. I think it's a Protech(ph) 7000. I kind of cross-referenced it on different phone models on the Internet.

But La Russa - OK. So here's maybe an indication of why La Russa retired. He out-managed Ron Washington, the Rangers manager in that World Series. He mostly did the right thing. But in that moment, maybe Tony La Russa of '89 or Tony La Russa of 1999 would've been hopping mad. You know, he's an intense guy. But in the press conference afterwards, someone said, you know, is there anything you could do to make communication better, and he said, I don't know. Maybe smoke signals. I mean, it was a little bit like he had put his foot off the gas pedal a little bit. His personality had changed. Not that you can't manage that way, not that it's a flawed way to manage. It just struck people who have been covering Tony La Russa as not very La Russa-like to be something other than hopping mad.

And on ESPN, I even saw a couple of the commentators saying, how could La Russa joke about that? This is a very serious mistake. You would - if you followed La Russa, you'd never think anyone would ever criticize him for being anything less than the utmost in seriousness. So, you know, people are saying it was kind of unexpected even though La Russa is 67, was unexpected that he would retire. But his attitude did seem slightly different this year in this postseason as compared to postseasons past, and he's such a great manager. He's usually in this postseason.

CONAN: And his final contribution may be that next year we'll have a - text messages will become the preferred method of summoning relief pitchers rather than the old fashion phone. Maybe baseball could get an underwriting arrangement with, I don't know, Motorola or Nokia or iPhone, whomever.

PESCA: It has been suggested that he was angling for that endorsement. Yeah. I mean, if Taco Bell gets your order right and they post it in the back so the guys in the back know that you ordered a chalupa upfront, I could think a major league baseball team might want to imitate that technology.

CONAN: And is an era passing here? You've - you see Tony La Russa. Just a year and a bit ago, Joe Torre finally leaving the manager's bench. There's a generation of players - managers who are leaving the game.

PESCA: That's true. An innovation - and this is the thing about Tony La Russa. He was a lawyer and he used computers and he was innovative, and the old guard didn't like him. And the manager of the Brewers didn't even let - when they had the All-Star game, didn't even let him be a coach, which is a ceremonial thing when he was a young guy managing the White Sox. So he was an upstart. And now he's kind of seen as old guard and a little cranky, but he's still such an innovator and he was still always willing to thwart convention. So I think a lot of the younger managers are very willing to thwart convention.

But, you know, baseball is a game, at least its managerial ranks, unlike some of those other sports. You know, I can't see an 80-year-old being an NFL coach, but it happened in baseball. You know, Jack McKeon was managing this year. Jim Leyland is an old manager. So you still have the ability for some of the old guard to hang onto their posts as it were.

CONAN: Which is why, I guess, even managers have to wait five years before they can be inducted into Cooperstown for fear they might come back.

PESCA: Yeah. And who knows? They just might. I mean, I could see La Russa getting the itch at 75, and what are you going to do?

CONAN: I guess the Hot Stove League has started in St. Louis. Any early candidates to take over for Tony La Russa?

PESCA: Well, they're thinking that - not Dave Duncan, who is his pitching coach, but perhaps some of other members of his staff and, of course, there are high profile managers out there. Who knows? Maybe he could get Joe Torre, who is a lifelong St. Louis - or not a lifelong, but played for the St. Louis Cardinals and, yeah, managed there.

But, you know, I think that the biggest impact on the Hot Stove League, well, people will say - and I think rightly so - that this at least diminishes ever so slightly the Cardinals' chance of resigning Albert Pujols who, for years, was the best slugger in baseball and is now still one of the best. He seems to have a real great working relationship with La Russa, and so that's maybe one less reason for Pujols to come back, although they are so intertwined. I would at least like to see him stay a Cardinal for next year and all the years to come.

CONAN: And before we get too many emails, I do know that Joe Torre grew up in Brooklyn, all right. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joined us from our bureau in New York. Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Tomorrow, when loved ones spin out of control with drugs or alcohol, we'll talk about what you do when it's just a matter of time. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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