He remains, simply, the longest tenured manager in Oakland A’s history.
Only Connie Mack and Dick Williams before him led the Athletics to multiple World Series appearances.
Next summer he will again follow in their footsteps. To Cooperstown.
Whether you believe a manager brings true value to his team or not - or perhaps you find the hypocrisy of the Hall-of-Fame offensive - I think it’s safe to say that Tony La Russa knew a thing or three about his profession. As one blogger wrote:
Without LaRussa and Duncan, there’s no Dave Stewart; Mike Moore would’ve been a “what might have been” disappointment; Chris Carpenter would’ve been a journeyman bust; and Eckersley would’ve been finished at 33.
I can’t vouch for Moore and Carpenter, but the part about Stewart and Eckersley is accurate. If La Russa hadn’t pulled their careers out of the ashes, there’s no telling how many more years A’s fans would have had to endure watching their team toil in baseball purgatory, also known as not quite sucking enough.
If you’ve missed the point, try to imagine that glorious period of A’s baseball without Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley. When you’ve finished shuddering, read on.
In the 731 games prior to La Russa’s hiring (Opening Day 1982 to the first week of July, 1986), the A’s were 327-404. With the departure of Rickey Henderson following the 1984 season, they were also a team searching for an identity.
On July 7, 1986, they found one.
Less than three weeks after being dumped by the Chicago White Sox – where he earned his first shot as a big-league manager in 1979 and guided the Sox to their first American League West title in ’83 – La Russa found himself with the A’s, the very club that drafted and signed him as a player in 1963.
The A’s, 31-52 at the time of La Russa’s hiring, were not going to let him ease into the job. His first assignment: Roger Clemens and the Boston Red Sox at Fenway. The Rocket would win MVP and Cy Young honors for the American League Champion Sox in 1986, and he was sporting a 14-1 record the night the A’s arrived for their nationally televised showdown. La Russa countered with home-grown Dave Stewart whose previous stints in the majors with Los Angeles, Texas, and Philadelphia were marred by mediocrity and one unfortunate off-field incident.
Backed by homeruns off the bats of Jose Canseco and Dave Kingman, Stewart did what he would often do for the next four-plus seasons: he pitched well enough to win. Oh, and he also got the better of Clemens nearly every time they shared the mound.
La Russa’s impact was immediate, not with that lone victory in Boston, but in his trust and confidence in a pitcher who was more than likely on his last lifeline. Under their new manager, the A’s went 45-31 the rest of the way in 1986, and finished at .500 the following season. It was during that year that La Russa and his pitching coach Dave Duncan converted a former star starter – and recovering alcoholic, though no one knew it at the time – into a Hall-of-Fame closer:
When Eckersley first reported to the A's, La Russa took him aside, and they went for a little walk in the outfield. "Tony gave me this little talk he has about how a player has to keep that fire inside or he might as well quit," says Eckersley. "It was really a gut check, and I guess I nodded enough to pass."
La Russa also recalls the chat: "He passed, but he still had to pitch."
I think you all know how that story ends.
The next three seasons ended with the A's playing in the World Series. Although they only won one out of three, they chose the right one to win - a sweep of the San Francisco Giants in a Series better known for Mother Nature's rude behavior.
There was nothing unkind about the cover story Sports Illustrated did on La Russa in 1990, which offered a peek into a new world of player evaluation:
At 1:30 in the afternoon on a muggy spring Monday in Boston, the Oakland Athletics are working on their data base. Tony La Russa, the Oakland manager, and three of his aides are working in the small, spartan office used by the visiting team's manager, just off the larger but still cramped room where the team dresses. There will be a game `tonight at Fenway, and the pulse of the ballpark is quickening. For the men in La Russa's office the atmosphere is like that inside a cramped bunker during a day of desultory shelling at Verdun. The booming cannons echoing in the concrete cubicle at Fenway are actually beer kegs being unloaded, none too gently, from trucks and onto the concrete floor on the other side of the cubicle's wall. The only soft sounds in the office are the splats of tobacco juice into paper cups.
This day, in Boston, the manager is seated at a metal desk dreary enough to be government issue. He is wearing socks but no shoes, jeans but no shirt and a frown of concentration. On the desk is The Elias Baseball Analyst. With La Russa are Lach, Dune and Schu.
After a fourth-place finish in 1991, La Russa led the A's to a fourth AL West crown in five years, and earned his second Manager of the Year award in Oakland (the first came in 1988).
Oakland posted a 798-673 record under La Russa's watch from 1986-95, a .542 percentage.