When I read that Tony La Russa had retired on Halloween, I initially took to be some sort of joke. Usually fake headlines are saved for April Fool's Day, but I thought maybe some writers were being especially creative. It wasn't until a saw it on the ESPN crawl that I realized it was for real.
La Russa goes out as one of the most accomplished managers of all time. His 2,728 regular season wins are the third-most ever, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw; he won three championships, something only eight other managers have done; he won titles in both the American and National Leagues, a feat only he and Sparky Anderson accomplished; he won 500 games with three separate organizations, making him the second to do so after Leo Durocher. And, if he really has hung up his cleats, La Russa will be the first baseball manager to call it quits directly after winning a title.
His shtick was and has always been pitching. He is known for having invented the modern relief pitching format, and is credited with having made more pitching moves than any manager in history according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He tied himself to Dave Duncan, making him his personal pitching coach and assuring that the relievers he'd be subbing in were quality ones, vetted by one of the game's top pitching evaluators.
His career was not without flaws. If his strength was as a game manager, his weakness was maintaining his players off the field. Many of his star players were found to have used steroids, including Mark McGwire, who played for him in Oakland and in St. Louis, as well as the now whorish Jose Canseco. And although much of his moves were celebrated as intelligent, it's hard to argue that many of his decisions weren't superfluous to the point of being ostentatious, like his penchant to bat the pitcher in the seven-hole, a move impossible defend when considering his worst hitter wasn't receiving the least at-bats.
Also, La Russa made so many decisions, so often, that many of them appeared semantic, if not a brazen attempt to draw attention to himself. In Game 5 of this year's NLDS, La Russa replaced Ryan Theriot in the lineup with Skip Schumaker, who drove in the game's only run. But it's not like Theriot was struggling or anything; in fact, he was batting .600 in the series. It's not inconceivable, or even impractical that Theriot, which such a glorious batting average, couldn't have done just as well had he played in the game. He never got the shot, and La Russa was credited for making a savvy adjustment. Still, the point should be made that when a manager makes that many moves, in particular, more pitching moves than anyone in history, he's bound to look like a genius. How can't he be? Literally every game he managed had his signature all over it, and when his win total is considered, it's not hard to see why many people consider him brilliant, as it looked like he had more to do with the win than anyone ever.
Maybe I'm being glib. Maybe I've watched enough of Mike Shannahan, an NFL coach who many would consider the football equivalent to Tony La Russa, to doubt whether anyone is strictly a "genius." But La Russa's resume cannot be overlooked. He is easily one of the most accomplished managers ever, and if he had flaws, they were no different than the flaws that any other manager has. Most of all, he was unique. We may never see another manager who so often managed in the now, who would use six different pitchers to retire six batters if meant winning the game. He did things his way and found success from it, and for that, he will be missed.