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Does It Bother You That He’s Old, Or Does It Bother You That He’s Tony La Russa?

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 08: Special Advisor Tony La Russa of the Los Angeles Angels looks on during their summer workout at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 08, 2020 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It isn’t hard to find coaches who worked into their 70s. College football is loaded with them, and the ones who aren’t 70 mostly act like it. But it takes a deeper dive to find folks who were hired when they were 70 or above, because even among franchise owners who are well into their 70s, creating 70-year-old employees is considered an HR nightmare. You know how expensive those benefits can be.

We are all ageists to one extent or another. We may be consistent in applying that ageism, but we do the calendar calculations all the time. When does “wise old sage” teeter into “doddering old nitwit”? I guess that depends on your last pitching change, punt on fourth and two, or miscalculation of remaining timeouts. We did it yesterday to Tony La Russa (76), the new Chicago White Sox manager. We’re doing it today to Mike D’Antoni (69), the eldest member of the Steve Nash College Of Coaches in Brooklyn. In fact, those very birthday citations are ageism as well as facts.

So we’re bad people. I think we’ve come to grips with that in the last four years.

But La Russa raises the age-question about dogs and tricks because his hiring includes his years of Hall of Fame–level managing pitted against the changes in baseball strategy since he stopped. Not the bat-flip stuff or the anthem-kneeling stuff or the player empowerment stuff; if he can’t manage to find flexibility in those fields, he won’t last long enough to learn how baseball has changed.

And doing new stuff between first pitch and last will be more difficult than biting his tongue about his players’ deportment re: the rapidly decomposing unwritten rules. La Russa is, as near as I can tell, only the seventh person in major professional sports to be hired while in his 70s, a group that includes at least Jack McKeon (80), Al Arbour (75), Romeo Crennel (73), Casey Stengel (72), Roy Hodgson (71), Neil Warnock (70), and Dusty Baker (70)—and yes, admire all those ageist parentheticals.

Of those, McKeon was an interim manager when he was brought to Miami a second time to put a plunger to the toilet-dwelling Marlins. Arbour was a one-game ceremonial choice by the New York Islanders so he could end his career with 1,500 games coached. Crennel is the interim choice with the Houston Texans now that Bill O’Brien has been declared way too Bill O’Brien for his or the team’s own good. Stengel was largely a PR move by the freshly birthed New York Mets as a finger in the eye to the stuffed-shirt Yankees who had just fired him.

On the B-side, Baker was brought to Houston as a serious choice to smooth over the Astros’ sign-stealing mess and got the boys to the ALCS. Hodgson has helped keep Crystal Palace from being relegated, and Warnock was an interim choice at Middlesbrough before being extended this year. There are probably any number of other soccer examples, but Comrades Paez-Pumar and Haisley can do the research on that. They’re young; screw ’em, put ’em to work.

La Russa’s bigger challenge will be to adapt to a brand-new way of bullpenning since the new model in part repudiates the one he and Dave Duncan created around Dennis Eckersley in Oakland. Not only are there fewer valued closers, but the three-batter minimum eliminates the LOOGY/ROOGY system La Russa and Duncan helped perfect. Also, the three true outcomes fetish that is strangling offensive creativity would clash with La Russa’s less dogmatic strategic view.

On the other hand, if he was presented with a Blake Snell situation and got a phone call from general manager Rick Hahn about third-time-through-the-order, he would likely bring Jose Abreu to the dugout and have him beat the phone to death with his BP bat. So there’s that. And La Russa didn’t ignore the warning signs about rising strikeouts in the game until he was 20 years in, when Mark McGwire was force-feeding the game home runs.

In some ways, he could actually be a force for good in a game with growing stagnation issues, and he would not actually be an anti-analytics guy. He was not averse to using numbers to make pre-game choices in Oakland, since his general manager at the time, Sandy Alderson (hello, Mets!), was on the front edge of the math movement. La Russa has been more of a fud on the unwritten rules about who gets thrown at and why, and there he will have to defy his years of experience and accept that times have a-changed, whether he likes it or not.

So the matter of whether La Russa is out of step is not really a matter of age but flexibility. Yes, he is 76, and nobody hires 76-year-olds to wear the clothes of people one-third their age. But maybe against the run of play, he could turn out to be the kind of cool grandpa the kids like to see at holiday time. It’s probably not the way to bet, given that he once spent a chunk of a pregame working out bullet points on ripping Jose Canseco after he was traded to Texas, but it’s not out of the realm of likelihood.

Besides, his hire has helped shift the narrative from Justin Turner, who has moved the narrative from the Cash’n’Snell Detective Agency, who have moved the narrative from the unrepentant Astros. Maybe he’s part of baseball’s new era of misdirection: “You think that’s weird? Get a load of this.” Hell, maybe going back to the future is considered the new market inefficiency. After all, who thought Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Orr would publicly endorse Donald Trump?

By the way, that last question was meant solely as strychnine-laced chum for you loyal commenters. You’re welcome.