Very rarely, we're treated to a Happy Warrior type—a manager or coach who makes the occasional joke, smiles at appropriate moments, and seems like he might read books that don't have names like The Extermination Effect: 11 Brutally Efficient Management Secrets of Pol Pot or watch things besides game tape, crueler-than-average pornography and/or Braveheart. That is rare, though. For the most part, the best you can hope for from the grown-ass men who manage slightly less grown-ass professional athletes is someone who seems like a decent-ish old dude. And at the highest levels of managerial success—which is where you'll find Tony La Russa, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series win and then retired on Monday—you will find, mostly, crazy people.
Here there be dragons. In football, the alpha coach-geniuses are grimacing bile-monsters like Patriots coach Bill Belichick and vicious killer manatees like Bill Parcells. In basketball, they're pathological corporate raider-types like Pat Riley and vain sadists like Phil Jackson. And in baseball, resplendent and solitary on a Danzigian throne of skulls, shaking his head in disappointment at all he surveys, there is La Russa. Tony La Russa, is one of the greatest managers in baseball history and one of its most bafflingly nasty humans. He's the guy who made winning 2,728 games as a manager look like passing a kidney stone the size of an eggplant.
La Russa's job as a manager was winning baseball games, and he did that job very well. (La Russa's job was not preventing steroid use among his charges, or preventing a rotten clubhouse culture of super-stupid drinking, or even not getting asleep-at-the-wheel DUI's—which is good, because he was terrible at all those things.) As irritating as the pseudo-science of modern bullpen management—the hunch-based goofery that leads to endless pitching changes—is, La Russa virtually invented it, and used it more effectively (and more often) than most. La Russa deserves a great deal of credit for this. What sets him apart, and what will make him so difficult to miss, is how hilariously churlish he has been about accepting that credit.
There's nothing that says La Russa, or anyone else, needs to be loved or lovable. And for all of La Russa's extravagant dickishness—his relentlessly sour and aggro approach to other humans; the grievance-based intellectual paleoconservatism that led him to label on-base percentage "a dangerous concept" and buy a ticket to Moneyball so he could storm out in protest—it's easy to see him as a victim of his job. "You don't enjoy the wins like you suffer the losses," La Russa told ESPN's Buster Olney. And while that's an old coaching truism, there's definitely some truth in it. But more than that, baseball managers, much more so than basketball's fast-twitch strategists or football's tactician-executives, don't actually do much. There’s only so much a middle-aged dude can do to keep the players on the field from winning or losing a given game. La Russa's manic hyper-managing—all those pitching changes and double-switches and lineup tinkerings—and prickly-pear defensiveness about it could be seen as a futile attempt to defy that irrelevance.
Or he could just be a dick. La Russa counts seething, self-infatuated coaching legends such as Parcells and ulcer-in-a-windbreaker Bob Knight among his closest personal friends; he has shared a stage with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. That is some strong circumstantial evidence, and La Russa has never done much to dispel it. Throughout his career, La Russa took pains to make clear how deeply he believed that no one could possibly understand him, his majestic brain, or the complicated computations that went into all of his (so very many) decisions. That he might well have been right—about the unknowable depths of his own genius, about all of it—may wind up being less his legacy than how un-fun he made winning look and how sourly he inhabited his own genius.
Previously – Young, Dumb, and Full of Jesus