This morning, I heard retired baseball manager Tony LaRussa on NPR's "Morning Edition" talking about his induction this weekend in the the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
LaRussa managed the White Sox from 1979 to '86, the A's from '86 to '95 and the Cardinals from '96 until his retirement in 2011. He won three World Series, including one with Oakland in '89 and two with the St. Louis in 2006 and 2011.
Love him or hate him -- and folks seem to vehemently do one or the other -- there's no denying LaRussa boasts an impressive resume and obviously Hall of Fame-quality credentials.
But his comments this morning about the players who would clearly be in the Hall were it not for the steriod-era scandals -- Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds were named by LaRussa -- especially caught my attention. LaRussa didn't hedge. McGwire, he said, should be inducted.
"The only thought I have is that you acknowledge that there's that one period, that there's a lot of questions — not just about the poster boys, but about other guys," he told Steve Inskeep. "And if you had Hall of Fame credentials, then if you get in, there's an asterisk on your plaque that says, 'Look, we have a question.'"
This got me wondering. As a guy whose World Series-winning A's team, for example, was fueled at least in part by McGwire (who hit 33 homers that year, though batted only .231), is LaRussa's record as a manager tainted in any way by players' steroid use?
If a player's success deserves an asterisk as being potentially inflated by drug use, does that suggest that the team and its manager also benefited from that drug use? On one hand, it seems obvious that if top players' performance is enhanced and their numbers have lifted a team to the World Series, that ring is at least a little tarnished.
Then, add in the fact that baseball numbers crunchers have suggested that a manager's own effect on a team across a 162-game season is small:
"Sabermetrics tells us that most dugout decisions barely have any effect on the outcome of the game," wrote Neil Payne on Fivethirtyeight.com in March. "Furthermore, if we look at effects on player performance, it’s evident that hardly any manager can distinguish himself from his counterparts. Based on my analysis, 95 percent of all managers are worth somewhere between -2 and +2 wins per 162 games. Last year alone, 21 batters and seven pitchers were worth more to their teams than nearly every manager of the last 112 years."
If it's true that managers have that minimal an effect, one could argue against them being in the Hall of Fame at all -- that's a whole different discussion -- but it surely suggests that the performance of their players is really what built their success.
If those performances are asterisk-worthy, is their manager's? Should LaRussa's plaque have an asterisk? The former manager himself told Inskeep, "all I say is treat everybody the same."
As LaRussa also said this morning, "there's no easy answer." I know that I don't have one, but I'm curious to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment using the Talkback feature below.
"100 years of baseball, and somehow Tony LaRussa thinks he's smarter than everybody else that's ever done it"
- Bill Schroeder
He dropped that gem during a live game broadcast once, and I'll never forget the contentious tone in his voice. You could tell he genuinely didn't like the guy. Loved it.
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