Unretire skippers for All-Star Game
There’s not much about baseball that eluded former manager (and future Hall of Famer) Tony La Russa. As a chess master plots a move with the next one in mind, as a pool shark lines up a shot to set up a run-the-table sequence, La Russa never made a decision without weighing every possible consequence.
But even the brightest minds are vulnerable to information overflow, and during the 2004 World Series, after La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals lost the first two games to the Boston Red Sox, the manager had to be reminded of a task that awaited him in 2005.
“Are you excited about managing in next year’s All-Star Game?” La Russa was asked as his team concluded an off-day workout in St. Louis.
La Russa’s eyes stood still for few seconds. The question had been lobbed from left field.
“The All-Star Game?” he finally said. “Wow! That’s right! I get to manage in the All-Star Game! I love that event – it’s an honor to be involved – but, man, I had completely forgotten about it.”
La Russa has needed no prodding to ponder next week’s Midsummer Classic. Last January, three months after he announced his retirement, La Russa accepted baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s offer to manage the National League All-Stars. The tradition of designating the skippers of the defending league champions as All-Star managers dates back to 1934, but there had been some uncertainty about La Russa. He was, after all, retired.
“Tony earned this opportunity with the remarkable run the Cardinals completed last October, and I am delighted that he shared my enthusiasm about staying in this role,” Selig said in a statement. “The All-Star Game celebrates all the best of our game, and it is very appropriate that we will have the chance to celebrate one of the greatest managerial careers of all time as a part of our festivities.”
Selig merely wanted to honor La Russa. The commissioner wasn’t looking to add another tweak to an exhibition that already has been tweaked with rule changes (catchers and one player from each team now are eligible to re-enter the game after a substitution) and the controversial “reward” to the league that wins (home field advantage in the World Series).
But the more I think about La Russa embracing the challenge of configuring a lineup – and helping shape an NL roster – the more I’m intrigued by the idea of appointing All-Star Game managers from baseball’s retirement community.
It’s not as if the status quo is broken. The Texas Rangers’ Ron Washington, the AL manager, will devote time and energy in an attempt to win a contest that has obvious ramifications for his team.
(Do the Rangers lose that classic sixth game of the 2011 World Series if they’re taking on the Cardinals in Texas? We’ll never know, but I’ll volunteer a two-word opinion: No. Way.)
But Washington can’t be blamed for approaching the All-Star Game in a state of distraction.
The Rangers are in first place, the Angels appear primed for a second-half run at them, and his focus is on the Here and Now urgency of the regular season, as it should be.
La Russa, on the other hand, is liberated from the day-to-day grind of a burgeoning pennant race. Retirement allows him to watch baseball from a different vantage point, and it’s not tethered to the dugout rail. Having no dogs in this hunt enhances his view of the big picture.
“I’ve enjoyed staying close to it,” La Russa told The Associated Press last weekend, “trying to see who’s hot and who deserves to be on the team.”
La Russa is 67, still capable of divining a baseball organization with his insight. The opportunity to manage again – if only for one night, in a game that won’t have impact on the standings – will stoke the embers burning in a man born to compete.
And he’s not alone. Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, who’s also assured a place in the Hall of Fame, would be a terrific choice to manage an All-Star Game. For that matter, so would Lou Piniella, and Joe Torre, and Frank Robinson, and Felipe Alou, and Tom Kelly.
And while I’m not sure such legendary managers as Tommy Lasorda (84), Earl Weaver (81), and Whitey Herzog (80) would be up to the task, I’m not sure they wouldn’t be.
The notion of returning retired managers into the midsummer spotlight is not unprecedented, by the way. In 1933, for the inaugural All-Star Game – conceived as a once-and-done spectacle by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward – John McGraw was named NL skipper, even though his managerial career had concluded with a fifth-place, 72-82 finish with the 1932 New York Giants.
The rave reviews following the original All-Star Game – it helped that Babe Ruth hit a home run – generated momentum toward turning the exhibition into an annual event. For the second All-Star Game, it was decided that managers would represent the defending pennant winners, and that’s where we are now.
Or, more precisely, were. Selig’s decision to give La Russa a chance to manage again opens the door for an All-Star Game that does more than pose a photo opportunity for the sport’s legends. Selig has opened the door for ex-managers still capable of contributing wisdom and insight.
“This Time It Counts” was the marketing theme for the 2003 All-Star Game, which first emphasized the home-field-in-the-World Series stakes on the line for the league that won.
Tony La Russa might be out of baseball, but don’t underestimate the passion he’ll bring to Kansas City. Don’t underestimate the competitive streak of somebody who is 67 years old, and has been given authority to a manage a game that counts.
How cool is that?