Tony La Russa, the engineer behind the A’s rise to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, is heading to Cooperstown.
La Russa was one of three men, all managers, elevated to Hall of Fame status Monday morning from a field of a dozen candidates from the expansion era (1973-present). La Russa was voted in unanimously, as were longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who did most of his winning while at the helm of the New York Yankees.
The last time all three were active at the same time was 2010, the year that Cox and Torre called it a career. La Russa retired after the 2011 season with 2,728 wins, third on the all-time list. Cox finished fourth with 2,504 wins and Torre fifth with 2,323.
It was the golden era of managers, and before the 2010 season, I sat with all three to talk about their careers and the careers of their peers.
In the final week of the 2009 season La Russa passed legendary Giants manager John McGraw to have managed the second-most games in history, 4,772. He will never catch the No. 1 manager in terms of both wins and games, Connie Mack, for the simple purpose that La Russa doesn’t own his team as Mack did with the A’s, a team he managed for 53 years.
What La Russa, a self-described fan of managers, does own is the perspective to talk knowledgably about the best traits of the other three.
“Bobby is very bright about baseball games and situations and is very sound in running a game and has great ideas,’’ La Russa said. “I got to see him a lot for the first time when I came over here (to St. Louis and the National League) in 1996. He’s just a classy person and very professional. He knows why he’s on the field – he’s there to win and to accomplish that with a lack of bull. He doesn’t put his team in bad situations, and he competes like a maniac.
“Joe had great credentials as a player. And he has a personality that was created for managing in New York. He was able to hold his own with George (Steinbrenner) and while he had a lot of good players, he was the equal of his star players, earning their trust and their respect. Those are two of the best assets a manager can have.
“Joe always has had the knack of handling wins and losses the right way. The Yankees’ best case scenario is always the World Series. When they don’t get there, it is not a good year. That’s hard to deal with, but Joe always did. The other thing about his Yankee teams is that from the outside the focus is on all the money they spent on their roster. You were not going to be happy losing to them, but they didn’t insult you. They beat you, that’s all. And his Dodger teams were the same way.’’
What was it exactly that made these three special?
“For me, it’s the passion that you need to have to keep doing the job year after year,’’ Torre said. “It’s the one thing we all have in common. You talk about walking away from it, but it’s been such an important part of all our lives.
“I remember after I’d been with New York three or four years I said I wasn’t going to be doing this past the age of 60. Well, I’m pushing 70 now, and I’m contemplating another year after this one. You never know how long the passion will last.’’
La Russa said “the basis of managing is that they are paying you to for your best judgment. Sometimes it means going by the book. A lot of the time it doesn’t.’’
Over the years, managers have found “the book,’’ whatever it is, has changed. All the newest members of the Hall of Fame say that managing at the end of their careers had quantum differences from when they started.
“Managing is different now,’’ La Russa said. “You don’t have the same control of players you used to. It’s harder to keep their attention. The players all have their other people, and those other people are telling them what they should do. And from that point, doing this is not as much fun as it used to be.
“On the other hand, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now, and the number of guys I’ve had who I dislike is incredibly small. That makes this job so much easier day to day.’’
Torre has seen the change, too, but like the others doesn’t run from it.
“For me, the change is the challenge,’’ Torre said. “When I was still playing, a manager could threaten a player. You can’t do that now. There’s no more, `Do this because I told you to.’ Now you have to have a reason that you can make them understand.
“Tony’s right when he talks about having the players’ attention. Part of what makes this job doable is the players paying attention to you. You have to be aware of having that attention and respect.
“Either way, you have to use different words to basically say the same things, because the things you believe and the way you want your team to play is not going to change that much. When it comes right down to it, success adds credibility to what you do. I know that I get a lot more attention after becoming the Yankee manager and winning than I got before.’’
Winning is something the Cooperstown Class of 2013 specialized in. And yes, they are venerated for that by other managers and by players for that trait.
“We all want to win,’’ Cox said. “We all want to be able to look back and say our teams all played to win. There are reasons our (win totals) are up there. We’ve agonized over pitching changes and lineups for a long time.
“The philosophy I’ve always had is that you don’t always have great players, but whatever happens, keep playing hard. I really believe in that, and I want my players to believe in it, too.’’
And winning has no shortage of benefits.
“One thing we have after doing this all these years is some personal immunity,’’ La Russa said. “If what you’ve deemed to be the best move doesn’t work out, where’s your regret? You made the right call. You know that. It just didn’t work.
“If a call you make doesn’t work out, you can say it was a bad idea and go on to the next situation. The only chance for success you have in this game it to do whatever you think is right.’’
Those three did, and on Monday they got their sport’s ultimate reward.