Buzz Kill

The "genius" of Cardinals' Manager Tony LaRussa, the debate continues...

When Tony LaRussa first hit the bestseller lists, as a profile subject in George Will's ‘Men at Work', he later complained of the book's over-reverential take on his job skills. Back then, Will portrayed LaRussa as a baseball mind for the ages, somewhere between Casey Stengel and Whitey Herzog, except less funny than the first and more hairy than the second.

‘I'm no genius', LaRussa exclaimed after ‘Men at Work' became a big hit in 1990. Now that the Cardinals manager, along with co-author Buzz Bissinger, has made it back into print with ‘Three Nights in August', LaRussa has finally proved his point. He really is no genius.

It's not that any reading the book can question LaRussa's analytical skills or work ethic. The five-time Manager of the Year goes step-by-step through his thinking on the arcane details of game management, from lineup selections to pitching matchups. If you think that an encyclopedic knowledge of bullpen-set roles is the pinnacle of baseball wisdom, ‘Three Nights in August' is the book for you. As far as that stuff goes, LaRussa is far more than competent.

No, it's LaRussa's take on modern ball players that leads him pretty far away from the ‘genius' category. It just doesn't make much sense.

You see, LaRussa has a pretty sweeping, dim view of the values of modern ball players. It seems they live in "this ultimate age of selfishness", when a "constant thundercloud of money overhangs the game." "Now players' contracts give them the opportunity to earn significant money and security regardless of productivity," LaRussa (or is it Bissinger?) declares.

Pretty strong words. Completely wrong, but strong.

You want to talk about baseball productivity? Legions of scouts, Minor League instructors, and statisticians have been obsessed with the subject for decades. Nowadays sabermetric analysts and a ‘Moneyball' generation of front office executives are constantly pouring over players' tiniest, most exotic statistics, all in order to measure ball player productivity to the last one-thousandth of a decimal point. No evaluation system is clear and perfect, of course, but the world of baseball has almost made a fetish of ever-more clear and perfect measurements of true productivity.

Surely LaRussa and Bissinger have noticed this little trend in the game. That linkage between money and productivity has been pretty hard to miss. And impossible to square with their thesis.

After that bad start, however, LaRussa and Bissinger just keep on babbling on. It seems that today's ball players too often show a "disinterest that comes with too much security." "Now the problem is overconfidence," the Cards manager laments.

Hmmm. Here, again, there's a real area of concern. If LaRussa and Bissinger are anywhere close to the facts on the subject. But they aren't.

Today's ball players have to beat out more than three million youth baseball players in the United States (a record number), and an approximate equal number of foreign-born talents from South America and the Caribbean to Central America and the Pacific Rim. By all accounts, that global talent pool makes access to a Major League roster spot far more difficult than ever today. That unsurpassed difficulty is the exact reason why ‘Major League' has always been a by-word for American excellence in all walks of life.

Yet LaRussa imagines that the elite-of-the-elite successes who emerge from this global talent pool are somehow waltzing through Major League diamonds with less than maximum effort and daily commitment. Evidently, the man isn't easily impressed. It would be really interesting to check out a group of professionals who do fit the hard-to-please manager's criteria for ‘full' effort and commitment.

LaRussa's ballplayer/slacker notion makes less and less sense when you consider his further, unsupported assertion that Major Leaguers are somehow corrupted for the fact that they have "too much money and too much attention" at a young age. There's another strange old chestnut.

After all, few Major Leaguers make it to the highest level without playing hundreds of Minor League games (the average for 2004's All-Rookie team was over 400 games per position player). In all those uncertain years, even the most gifted bonus baby isn't promised anything except an uncertain road to the Majors and a couple of thousand dollars in salary per month. Once a prospect does beat out 90% of all Minor Leaguers to reach the highest level, he still has to play six full years (or about 1,000 games) before he's eligible for his first big free agent contract.

Maybe, to LaRussa, these truly are ‘unproven' baseball performers. Still, that's a pretty long time for anyone to hide his true, money-grubbing ways and lackadaisical attitudes, isn't it? Here's an alternative thought: maybe free agents earn multi-million dollar contracts exactly because they've proven themselves through the most grueling seasons in professional sports. Maybe modern ball players are duly rewarded with big time cash only after they've conclusively proven themselves as men who have literally devoted their entire lives to mastering the game of baseball.

All of this doesn't seem to register with not-quite-genius LaRussa, however. As evidence for his attacks on modern ball players, he mentions the example of J.D. Drew, a former star prospect for his team. It seems that when Drew was with LaRussa's Cardinals from 1998 to 2003, he never maximized his God-given potential out on the field. LaRussa and Bissinger assert that "Drew may be too talented, that [Major League performance'> comes too easily to him."

Oh boy.

J.D. Drew probably never has, and never will, made the very most of his natural abilities, and indeed that failure tells us a lot about J.D. Drew's character. But it's quite another thing to imply that this one underachiever represents some kind of damning indictment of the whole modern game.

The fact is that there have always been, and probably will always be players with freakish amounts of baseball talent without the personal character to fully harness it. Nowadays, it's Drew. In the 1990s, Jose Canseco was notorious for skating through his career with minimal hard work and focus. In previous generations, it was guys like Dick Allen and Bo Belinsky. Old timers might even remember another player who never achieved his potential- Mickey Mantle managed 536 career home runs, but squandered many more through reckless play, lapsed rehab assignments, and alcoholism.

To observe that Drew hasn't exactly made the most of himself, then, doesn't matter much when talking about baseball as an institution. LaRussa admits as much when he lauds Albert Pujols as an exemplar of baseball character. If you want to use one player as a poster boy for the attitude of all 750 Major Leaguers, you can just as easily use Pujols' perfect example of modern ball players' sterling personal habits, work ethic, and devotion to playing the game the right way.

In truth, both Drew's failings and Pujols' successes are beside the point. Baseball's most interesting questions look beyond individuals and consider the institution as a whole. Is modern baseball demanding more and more excellence out of its players? Drew-like flukes notwithstanding, are ball players committing more and more time, effort, and smarts to the game the fans are enjoying today?

The obvious answers are, yes and yes.

Ball players are getting bigger, smarter, and stronger in order to keep their edge against the ever-growing legions of young players clamoring to take their jobs. It's one of the reasons why modern ball players are using revolutionary new nutrition, rehabilitation, and ultra-professional workout routines- to keep their edge against the millions ready and eager to take their jobs away. No one disputes as much. Heck, modern baseball ‘scandals' are about the possibility that some players are going too far to keep their edge against that world of hard-charging competition.

In such an atmosphere, latter-day J.D. Drew's may sometimes find their way to a Major League rosters more through talent and/or greed than through good old-fashioned effort and heart. But it's rare fluke, and looks to become more and more rare as Major League competition gets tougher and tougher over time.

Still, it's a free country, and common sense and facts don't necessarily have to get in the way of ballplayer bashing. Anyone is free to look at the intricate, unforgiving world of statistical analysis and imagine slacker ball players getting away with lousy results. Or check out the competition engendered from a global talent pool and somehow see complacent performers. Or conclude that the most grueling apprenticeship in big time sports ends up producing untested stars.

A critic is free to gripe about all of that. But it doesn't take a Tony LaRussa to know better.

EDITOR's NOTE

Today's special guest columnist Peter Handrinos, is the webmaster of the United States of Baseball

You can write to Peter at pch@UnitedStatesOfBaseball.com or check out his website at United States Of Baseball.com


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