The Tony LaRussa Problem

This is the look we've all become accustomed to. So warm and inviting, no? (source: AP)

I was once a fan of Tony LaRussa. Admittedly, my love affair with the polarizing manager of the Cardinals was a brief one; it ended about a week before the start of the 1996 season. That was, of course, when Ozzie Smith was outdueling Royce Clayton for shortstop in spring training and LaRussa STILL refused to give Ozzie the job. Like most fans, I was left muttering, “Who does this frowning, hunched-over, kitten-petting idiot think he is, anyway?”

Then it only went downhill from there.

LaRussa apologists (otherwise known as “morons”) often defend him by citing his 2,638 career wins, a heady number that places him third on the all-time list.  Neat. But he also has the second-most losses of all time, too. In other words, having that many wins is really not a gauge of his actual talent as a manager. In fact, LaRussa’s overall record tells us that he is a mediocre manager who has happened to manage longer than almost everyone else. The oldest blind chicken in the blind chicken henhouse probably ends up with the most kernels of corn, too … that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great to be a blind chicken.

It’s actually shocking to consider LaRussa’s modest success (ranking only 64th in all-time winning percentage) given the teams and talent he has managed over the years in Oakland and St. Louis. The late-eighties Oakland teams were powerhouses featuring career years from Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Dave Parker, with rotations built around 20 game winner Dave Stewart. LaRussa also managed some of the strongest Cardinals teams in decades, most of which benefitted from having one of the greatest baseball players of the modern era in Albert Pujols. A broken flip-flop could manage these teams to victory.

During LaRussa’s tenure as manager of the Redbirds, several disturbing themes have become blatantly obvious. More often than not, these managerial and personality “quirks” seize up good teams (like 2004/2005) and capsize troubled teams (like the 2010 edition). Here are some of LaRussa’s biggest problems:

NO EYE FOR TALENT

The best baseball men can look at a player and determine his strengths and weaknesses on the field; LaRussa’s inability to do this is almost pathological. Rather than assess a player’s true athletic worth, LaRussa relies on a nebulous combination of personal appreciation, work ethic, and body type. When not given hulking monsters in the lineup, LaRussa without fail gravitates to spunky, smaller players with modest numbers and an extra helping of grit. How else can you explain why Aaron Miles has been with the Cardinals for four years?

Of course, the Herzog-built teams of the eighties were full of slap-hitting and gritty guys, too. But they were also athletic, fast, and didn’t have the same range as a bag of laundry. That’s because Herzog looked at his circumstances and could accurately assess the talent on his team. He didn’t grade his players based on how much he liked them or what they did ten years ago. Which leads me to the next point …  

THE VETERAN SYNDROME

Veteran players are an important part of a winning team. But, unless they are truly superstars, veterans should have limited exposure because their age and physical deterioration makes them more of a liability in the field. For instance, the everyday lineup of the 1985 Cardinals featured nobody over the age of 30 years old. People like Steve Braun (36 years old) and Mike Jorgensen (37 years old) had limited and fill-in roles on the club. The starters and almost all of the relievers on that team were all around thirty or younger except for veteran Bob Forsch.

But LaRussa actually favors a lineup that can get coffee discounts at McDonald’s. The team has taken up this unfortunate fetish, spending offseasons dumpster-diving for the latest thirtysomething veteran castoff. This past offseason the Cardinals did this again, acquiring Lance Berkman (35) to play right field every day despite knees that could buckle by June.

Again, the problem here isn’t a reliance on veterans; every team needs them. The problem here is over-reliance on veterans. LaRussa builds teams around veteran players three years past their prime, rather than build teams around prime players and complementing with veterans.

MANAGING BY STATISTICS

I believe this, more than anything, has contributed to LaRussa’s destructive over-reliance on veterans. As a stat man, LaRussa requires extensive notations in order to manage his game plan. Rookies don’t have extensive pitching match-up statistics and obsessively-recorded hit charts, making LaRussa “blind” in his use of rookies. Someone like Berkman, however, has a wealth of statistical information on how he hits and where, which gives a numbers guy like LaRussa ample understanding of how best to use him. Of course, all of the stats in the world can’t put Berkman in a position to win when he’s laid up in the trainer’s room, but that’s another story.

CATFIGHTS AND CLIQUES

A baseball team should be like a fraternity. The guys on that team should be like brothers, a close-knit group that sticks together through individual and team-related troubles. They should cheer for each other, weep with each other, party together, and support one another.

LaRussa has a guy as talented as Rasmus on the team, and he can't figure out how to play him every day? Really? (source: AP)

However, LaRussa’s teams almost always resemble a sorority; gossipy, cliquish, divided, tense, jealous, and uncomfortable. This is almost entirely LaRussa’s fault, as his personality and tendency toward favoritism cultivates this type of atmosphere. The number of players emotionally and professionally mutilated or destroyed by a LaRussa clubhouse is disturbing. The fight list seems endless: Ozzie Smith (who has avoided the franchise because of LaRussa), J.D. Drew, Anthony Reyes, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds … these big stars just couldn’t seem to get along with the man.

But 2010 was LaRussa’s masterwork of destructive emotional debris. In one short season he managed to fight with Ryan Ludwick (who was then shipped off), Brendan Ryan, and Colby Rasmus. The Rasmus situation was most telling about the atmosphere of a LaRussa clubhouse. During the September revelations of a rift between LaRussa and Rasmus, it was revealed that Pujols took the young man aside to talk to him, and that it was the first time the two had really talked in the year and a half that Colby had been on the team. HUH? The only logical explanation is that Pujols, playing favorites, sided with his manager’s dislike of Rasmus and his pedigree and ignored the kid. No major league clubhouse that expects to win can have a heavy atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

We can see LaRussa’s withholding of emotion in the day to day efforts of the team. Striving to be cooly professional all the time, the team generally lacks fire when it counts. This leads to limp playoff appearances, where the team settles into a chilled and tense mode that stifles any spirit. The best example of this came in the ninth inning of the 2005 playoffs when Pujols hit that monster three run homer off of Brad Lidge. When Pujols arrived at the plate, there was nary a celebration among the Cardinals players; they just clapped and moved on. No truly successful team has such a complete lack of fire and enthusiasm with the game on the line. This lack of emotional center comes directly from LaRussa.

INCONSISTENCIES

As Rolen found out, if you’re hurt and you don’t tell the team, you’ll be benched once it’s discovered. Unless you’re Larry Walker. Or Pujols. Or Molina. Or you’re the son of the pitching coach.

On or off the field, LaRussa doesn’t seem to have a consistent inner compass by which the other players can navigate the season. Rules seem arbitrary, shifting based on personal preference rather than being built on a solid foundation. Some players are set to unreasonable expectations that, when not met, result in their downfall (Brendan Ryan, for instance) while others are given a pass. Was Yadier Molina benched two years ago when he hit .200 for a season? Was he made to fight for a job the following year? Of course not. So what is the difference between Molina two years ago (light-hitting defensive star) and Brendan Ryan?? There isn’t one, actually, and can only be attributed to LaRussa’s inconsistent management of the team.

MICROMANAGER

LaRussa has always been a stats-heavy micromanager, but the last few years have seen him become obsessive about it – to the detriment of the team. By the fifth inning of every game, LaRussa is itching to pull a starter and begin the process of exhausting his bullpen. He’s like an impatient boss who cannot stand to see employees sitting around without giving them some busy work.

Last year’s 20 inning loss against the Mets might’ve been a win, except that LaRussa had used 80% of his pitching staff by the seventh inning. Several close losses last year could have been avoided had LaRussa not decided to pull Rasmus (who had the highest slugging percentage among centerfielders last year) in the seventh inning for the likes of Aaron Miles and Randy Winn (???).

His lineups, often the object of scorn among Cardinal Nation, reveals a mind that cannot stay focused or grasp the fundamentals of the game. What does batting Pujols third really accomplish? One hundred years of baseball history demonstrate the intelligence of batting your most powerful hitter at clean-up. Pujols is the one of the most powerful hitters ever, so if anyone should ever bat clean-up, it should be HIM. Not Chris Duncan.

But, because LaRussa thinks Pujols should bat third, we have the LaRussa brainfart of batting the pitcher eighth in order to have a “second leadoff man.” HUH? Here’s a thought: if that player batting ninth is so good, then put him at the top of the lineup in front of Pujols. The eighties Cardinals teams scored lots of runs without many home runs because they had three good hitters batting in front of their only home run threat. TRY THAT. Put some guys who can actually get on base at the top of your lineup in front of Pujols. And no, I’m not talking about Aaron Miles, either.

DESTRUCTION OF YOUTH

Nothing pains me more than watching LaRussa systematically destroy the entire farm system as it enters the major leagues. He misused Rick Ankiel. He tried to get Anthony Reyes to stop throwing his wonderful fastball for some reason. He trotted out Chris Duncan repeatedly despite his obvious lack of ability until he was worthless. He fought against keeping Pujols on the team in 2001. COLBY RASMUS. BRENDAN RYAN. It’s almost like he resents their youthful vigor or something.

Even worse, LaRussa likes to publicly trash these players as well, destroying their trade value. For instance, LaRussa calling Brendan Ryan “clueless” in the newspapers prior to the winter meetings seemed like one of the worst possible things you can do for a franchise. Sure, Tony … tell everybody how awful this guy is! I’m sure that’ll help during trade talks! Had I been the boss, LaRussa would’ve gotten a stern lecture about keeping his mouth shut.

LaRussa’s stubborn refusal to accept younger players from the farm system has almost always resulted in the franchise trading away these prospects for older veterans that do not pay off, or pay off at a steep price. This has and will continue to erode the farm system, which will take years to replenish and rebuild. Ask Oakland fans how long it too their organization to rebuild after LaRussa did the same thing over there.

CONCLUSION

When Sherlock Holmes was confronted by the evil of his arch-nemesis Moriarty, he admired the genius and wit while abhorring the wickedness. This is the exact opposite of how I feel about LaRussa. His managerial style and personal touch have been poisonous in the clubhouse and in the everyday lineup. I simply cannot accept his machinations no matter how many times he’s blessed with superior teams that win despite his basic instinct to ruin everything. 

It’s been a long 14 years under LaRussa’s spell. The coming year promises more baggage (what of the Rasmus drama over the winter?), more broken-down veterans, and more bewildering emergency lineups. I’m ready for LaRussa to retire to his kitten farm in California. I’m ready for fresh eyes to see possibilities instead of lack. I’m ready for renewal, for revival, for rebuilding.

When that finally happens, we can raise a glass together in celebration over the good times of the past, but, more importantly, the release from captivity of future’s promise. 

Hopefully soon this type of awkward situation will be a thing of the past.

Topics: A's, Aaron Miles, Anthony Reyes, Athletics, Bash Brothers, Brendan Ryan, Cardinals, Career, Chris Duncan, Farm System, Home Run, Jose Canseco, Loss, Losses, Manager, Manager Of The Year, Managerial, Mark McGwire, Minor Leagues, Molina, Oakland, Pujols, Rick Ankiel, St. Louis, Stolen Base, Tony LaRussa, Veteran, Whitey Herzog, Wins, Won, Young

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  • GregandCrystalSmith

    I don’t know if DeWitt and the group don’t realize it. You have to consider their situation and consider all the fallout if they were to oust La Russa.

    1. While I agree with you that he is VERY overrated and agree with most of the article, he does have the wins, the pedigree, and the influence in baseball that goes along with all that.

    2. Consider the PR nightmare if they forced him out and the Cards followed with a few bad seasons.

    3. If you lose La Russa, it is very likely that Dave Duncan is soon to follow, ESPECIALLY if La Russa is forced out. Losing Duncan would be a great loss.

    4. Pujols has been a vocal supporter of La Russa. If La Russa leaves on anything other than his own terms, it is very possible that you alienate Pujols and he either refuses to resign or, if they were to resign him first, he demands a trade.

    Lastly, sorry, but the DUI comment was just wrong. Even if you wish harm for La Russa, you do realize that many, many innocent people die every year because some person drinks and drives, right?

  • GregandCrystalSmith

    I don’t know if DeWitt and the group don’t realize it. You have to consider their situation and consider all the fallout if they were to oust La Russa.

    1. While I agree with you that he is VERY overrated and agree with most of the article, he does have the wins, the pedigree, and the influence in baseball that goes along with all that.

    2. Consider the PR nightmare if they forced him out and the Cards followed with a few bad seasons.

    3. If you lose La Russa, it is very likely that Dave Duncan is soon to follow, ESPECIALLY if La Russa is forced out. Losing Duncan would be a great loss.

    4. Pujols has been a vocal supporter of La Russa. If La Russa leaves on anything other than his own terms, it is very possible that you alienate Pujols and he either refuses to resign or, if they were to resign him first, he demands a trade.

    Lastly, sorry, but the DUI comment was just wrong. Even if you wish harm for La Russa, you do realize that many, many innocent people die every year because some person drinks and drives, right?

  • Geno1939

    LaRussa is an arrogant anal retentive!