Few men have had the impact La Russa had on his sport.
His most revolutionary work, often in tandem with general manager Sandy Alderson and pitching coach Dave Duncan, came with the A’s.
Probably his most notable move was creating the role of the one-inning closer. Before that, relief pitchers often came in before the ninth inning with men on base. Rollie Fingers, a Hall of Fame reliever for the A’s champions of the ’70s, once pitched the final three innings of a World Series game.
Dennis Eckersley had once been a very effective starter, but when he came to the A’s, he no longer had the stamina he once had. He still had his incredible control, though, and a fastball he could maintain for an inning.
“Dunc and I felt Eck was used to pitching in the ninth inning of tight games, so he’d be able to handle this pressure,” La Russa told me in a recent telephone conversation. “Plus, any hitter would rather face a tiring starter for the fourth time than a fresh Eckersley.”
So, La Russa and Duncan not only created a one-inning closer, but had specific pitchers for the seventh and eighth innings. Now, almost every manager sets up his pitching staff the same way.
La Russa also worked with Alderson in using what were then new baseball strategies. They came from the books written by Bill James in the ‘80s. Alderson embraced these theories wholeheartedly, particularly the one about “working the count” to push up the pitch counts of opposing starters. He even instructed A’s minor leaguers to always take a strike.
La Russa had a more balanced approach.
“If a batter swings at a bad pitch, that’s stupid,” he told me. “But if he takes a good pitch, that’s also stupid, because in the big leagues, you may only get one good pitch to hit in an at-bat.”
At that time, the A’s were also ahead of other clubs in using computers to analyze information and also in using videos of pitchers and hitters that they could analyze at length in their own clubhouse.
La Russa was also good at keeping players with large egos, like Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson, focused through three league championships and one World Series win in the 1988-90 period, though eventually, Canseco went off the rails and had to be traded.
Along with this, La Russa kept a much more balanced view of steroids than moralizing sportswriters and the 18th-century minds now running the Hall of Fame. He has suggested that plaques of those playing in the ’90s be designated with an asterisk denoting the “steroids era” rather than excluding the best players and pitchers.
That’s the rational mind of a man for whom I have great respect. Congratulations, Tony.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.