Tony La Russa's Illusion Of Genius

The Classical launches in November, but the cruel folks behind it love baseball way too much to let the World Series pass without comment. Throughout the series, its writers will do a daily diary for Deadspin. Keep tabs on us @Classical.

The football coach, as an archetype, falls somewhere between war hero and hip priest on the spectrum of American character. We beatify our football colonels via somnolent NFL Films specials, Broadway musicals, books about them by David Halberstam, coaching genealogies, by naming stadiums and streets after them. Coach is practically a kind of clergyman—I think you can recite at least one of their homilies even if you don't like football.

Some coach-clergy are cheeseball tweaker Joel Osteens, tooth-enamel-grinding apostles of the Gospel of Success. Others are phlegmatic depressives. Some are Rex Ryan. There's a cult of genius in football, a tree of life whose branches are obsessively trimmed, grafted, and murmured over.

Tony La Russa's Illusion Of Genius

Baseball doesn't really have geniuses. There are geniuses of fielding and hitting, and the occasional coaching supernovae like pre-Orioles Leo Mazzone. There are DePodestas and Anthopouloses and the occasional defrocked Ricciardi. But there is no cult of the manager genius. The top of the all-time managerial win list are ancient lizardmen who managed an unrecognizable game. Connie Mack was born during the Civil War.

There are many reasons for this, primary among them the fact that baseball is a sport of individual matchups that are merely tempered, never entirely controlled, by strategy. The theater of baseball, even down to its medieval 162-game season and the byzantine schism over the DH, arose in a different era. Football and basketball belong to a gray-flannel suburbia that needs geniuses to run smoothly; baseball crawled out of a primordial cornfield where genius was the reserve of the players.

Sometime next May or June, Tony La Russa will pass John McGraw for second on the all-time list. TLR will need a lot more hair dye if he wants to catch Connie Mack. But by any relevant standard, La Russa is the most successful manager of the modern game—in other words, a genius of baseball. Counselor La Russa may need a refresher course in telecommunication, but give him some slack: He more or less invented bullpens. He might be nearing the end of his shelf life, but his shit has worked in the playoffs. That's why, with just Colby Lewis standing between the Rangers and a first-ever title, we talk about the managerial menopause of Tony La Russa—like him or (mostly) not, he's the best at what he does.

TLR has put himself in these bright lights. This series has been unusually tight (save for the Eli Roth movie that was Game 3), and La Russa fudged the late innings of two of those three Cardinal losses, which makes for even better copy. And that's why we stare out at Game 6 from his POV, arms folded, peering through his feathered locks. Overclocked bullpen management and spastic lineup reordering can't unfudge Mike Napoli or revivify Cardinal bats with runners on. The genius of Tony La Russa is that he sometimes makes us believe that they can.

Pete Beatty edits books at Bloomsbury Press during the day, and works on the Classical at night, and tweets about Downton Abbey and sad Cleveland sports @nocoastoffense all the damn time.

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