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April 28, 2011
Span and Sain and Pray for Rain
Spy vs. Spy
Compared to football, or even basketball, “manager-vs.-manager” is rarely part of the hype surrounding a baseball game. There’s not really a personality-clash equivalent of, say, Bill Belichick’s team going up against Rex Ryan's, at least not these days. There are plenty of baseball managers who are still characters—hi, Ozzie!—but relatively few who really impose their personality or style on a team in a dramatic, Billy Martin sort of way. Some run more than others, some leave pitchers in longer than others—but ultimately, over the course of a season, a manager is usually not a huge factor in a team’s success or failure.
I started thinking about this last week, when two very different dugout fixtures went up against each other more directly than is typical these days. Last Friday night, the Reds were paying the Cardinals, and with rain predicted, La Russa decided to sit scheduled starter Kyle McClellan and start the game with reliever Miguel Batista. Dusty Baker, meanwhile, had Edinson Volquez warmed up and ready to go before a two-hour pregame rain delay hit, after which he instead stuck Matt Maloney in the game. The Cardinals went on to win, 4-2.
(In an odd little footnote, Volquez was officially credited with a game played, since he was in the starting lineup, even though he didn’t throw a pitch in the actual game).
It was a nice bit of maneuvering, or outmaneuvering, from La Russa. Baker was not happy:
I have no reason to think that La Russa or the Cardinals concealed anything from either Baker or the Cardinals, but even if they did, more power to them. It’s a long season and you have to take your advantages where you can find them.
Dusty Baker has been managing for 18 years now, La Russa for 34, and both played before that—Baker significantly better than La Russa, who was a defense-first infielder, the time-honored way of saying someone can’t hit (career OPS+: 56; VORP: -2.9). I can’t remember a baseball landscape without either of them, and for the last eight years in the NL Central they’ve gone head-to-head more often. Maybe it’s about time we got a good manager rivalry going again. I know Brandon Phillips will be happy to help.
I have never liked Tony La Russa. I’m not sure how that started, because I probably should—he’s a smart guy who’s always looking for an edge and willing to experiment, which is more than can be said for most big league managers. I’m not sure I’d bat a pitcher 8th, but I respect that La Russa will at least explore an interesting idea when given the chance. And yet I’ve never had warm feelings for the man. You could chalk it up to the particularly egregious DUI, or his jerkiness with reporters while I was covering the 2006 NLCS (and in general), or his counterproductive attacks on Scott Rolen and a post-concussion Jim Edmonds, or his appearance at a Glenn Beck rally, or his utterly self-defeating distaste for Colby Rasmus … but the truth is my dislike for him must predate all of those things—because I remember taking each of them, perhaps unfairly, as confirmation of my opinion. La Russa seems like a guy whose brain is undercut by a lack of interpersonal skills. Perhaps my favorite thing about him is this photo:
I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Dusty Baker is the opposite, but he’s certainly got a drastically different style. He backs up his players, almost never criticizes them in public, and is less prone to elaborate strategizing. He has repeatedly complained about players “clogging up the bases,” a phrase sure to make any BP reader wince and shudder. He plays the game by old-school conventional wisdom, or at least his perception of such… which has sometimes led to him overextending pitchers by currentconventional wisdom. Whereas La Russa changes pitchers like Jose Canseco changes money-making schemes.
At least, that’s the perception: La Russa the overmanager, Baker the more stolid type. When I looked to see which teams had the most single-at bats by hitters in a game, I expected La Russa to be at the top of the list. And his teams are indeed featured twice in the top 10, and four times in the top fifteen—but you know who’s number one? Dusty Baker’s 2004 Giants. Go figure. If Dusty Baker is an overmanager, at least he’s more low-key about it.
On the list of baseball managers I would most like to have a beer with, Baker is not at the the top, but he’s certainly closer than La Russa, who would probably come in near the bottom, somewhere near Eric Wedge. (Clustered at the top of that list, in no particular order, are Joe Maddon, Terry Francona, Manny Acta, Ron Gardenhire, and Ozzie Guillen. Every day I thank the Baseball Gods for giving us Guillen and fervently pray for his continued employment in the game; managerial talent aside, to a baseball writer he is worth a dozen Dusty Bakers.)
The Reds and Cardinals next play Friday, May 13th, and I’ll definitely be tuning in for that one and paying more attention than usual to the fellas in the dugout. A good managerial rivalry is great for both strategic analysis and good old-fashioned soap-opera drama. I don’t know whether or not to hope for a rain delay.