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Mudville: November 28, 2020 12:27 pm PDT
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THE STORY

Age & Rule Breakers

Old guys rule. So do guys who broke the rules.

In the never-ending lesson of Baseball is Life, that is what we learned this week with the managerial hires of Tony La Russa and A.J. Hinch.

As for La Russa, the last time a team made just such a move as the White Sox did, hiring a manager at least 72 years of age, they won the World Series.

That was the Marlins who hired Jack McKeon in May of 2003. He managed to turn around the 16-22 team and get his Marlins to the postseason, beat the Giants, stun the Cubs in the Steve Bartman NLCS and shock the Yankees in six games in the World Series, going against conventional wisdom and everyone else in Marlins hierarchy by electing to pitch ace Josh Beckett in Game 6 on short rest to finish off the Yankees.

That’s managing.

McKeon didn’t pull his ace like we saw Kevin Cash do this World Series in Game 6.

McKeon had the courage of his convictions even when the rest of the front office wanted to hold Beckett for a possible Game 7. That was some creative, go with your gut thinking and La Russa has one tough old guy act to follow.

But Tony La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager and will do things his way and will probably get some of his old coaches together in the act.

“He’ll get the band back together,’’ one trusted talent evaluator told BallNine this weekend.

“It’s like The Rolling Stones going on tour again.’’

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf made this move and you can just imagine the conversation.

“Tony, I’m not getting any younger. Get me back to the World Series.’’

This has been quite the last few days of managerial hires in the AL Central with the White Sox hiring La Russa and the Tigers signing up Hinch, who last managed the Cheatin’ Astros and was put in MLB jail for a year – suspended – after he was fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

Hinch let it all happen, including the trash can banging, on his watch.

While his Astros were breaking the rules left and right, Hinch broke two monitors. That was it. But life goes on, mistakes are made and now we will see if Hinch will manage the team and not let the inmates run the asylum this time around the block.

Personally, I like A.J. Hinch. He gave thought-provoking answers to questions unless the questions were about stealing signs and cheating, those he tried to laugh off. Not a good look, A.J.

I also like La Russa. I like his crazy-man intensity. Maybe because I am only nine years behind La Russa, I like the fact he wants to mix it up with managers half his age.

Hinch managed two years in Arizona and five years in Houston, winning the World Series in 2017. He marries analytics with real baseball life and considering his experience at the top of a cheating electronic sign-stealing frenzy by the Astros, he should have learned from his mistakes.

“Wrong is wrong,” Hinch said, “and I was very wrong.”

I have no problem with giving him another chance. I’ve always felt people who own baseball teams can pick whoever they want to manage. I felt the same way about Dusty Baker going to the Astros at the age of 71.  I really like the fact that the combined age of two guys who got managing jobs over the last year is 147 years old.

Also, Hinch paid the price for the Astros cheating along with former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. It’s time to move on. The Tigers are happy to have him and that is good enough for me.

“I was looking for a difference-maker,” Tigers GM Al Avila said. “I was looking for a guy that I could partner with in leading this organization to a world championship.”

That’s a good start, talking about a World Championship and not another BS five-year plan.

In La Russa, the White Sox have a manager with 33 years of experience. In Hinch, the Tigers have a young manager who has learned through experience.

There is nothing like managerial baseball experience.

I checked in with McKeon, who will be 90 this November, and asked his thoughts on the La Russa hire.

“It vindicates my hire,’’ McKeon told BallNine. “Now they can’t say anything about me. At least I won.’’

There you go, that’s the key. Win.

We will see if La Russa can win like McKeon won at such an advanced age. Game on.

Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa is back for an encore

McKeon, who managed many times against La Russa through the decades, offered this refreshing comment: “Tony La Russa is not going to be a puppet.’’

That’s the good news for baseball. Fewer nerd puppets are a good thing.

McKeon used to love to lock managerial horns with La Russa, they both have an incredible competitive streak. After the 2005 season McKeon retired at the age of 74, but came back to manage the Marlins in 2011 at the age of 80. When McKeon arrived on the Marlins scene in 2003, the Marlins were struggling and he didn’t care if he hurt the players feelings.

Much different world now. Much more sensitive.

God forbid a manager hurts a player’s feelings now unless of course it’s all done in the name of analytics. Kevin Cash takes out his ace Blake Snell who is pitching a shutout with one out in the sixth inning, having struck out nine, including striking out the top three hitters in the Dodgers’ lineup – Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner all six times he faced them. But he’s taken out because the third time through the lineup is a guaranteed disaster. At least that is what they tell us.

I asked McKeon if he would have stuck with Snell and he said he absolutely would have stuck with him, noting, “He might have pitched a complete game the way he was going.’’

That’s not just blowing smoke from McKeon, who no longer smokes cigars. Jack McKeon has the resume to prove it; ie: Josh Beckett, Game 6.

La Russa’s resume says he will be his own man and make his own decisions. His teams have won six pennants and three World Series in 33 years of managing, the last coming with the Cardinals in 2011 when La Russa was a spry 66.

AJ HINCH

A.J. Hinch gets a second chance at managing after his year suspension

Baseball needs a change in course as I wrote Wednesday after the Rays debacle in Game 6 as that became the most read article ever on BallNine.

La Russa was essentially hired by the owner Reinsdorf just as McKeon was hired by the Marlins owner at the time, Jeffrey Loria. La Russa understands the analytics world but for the last nine years has been watching from above in the press box or the boss box.

Side note: I would see Tony at the far-right end of the Yankees press box when the Yankees played the Red Sox and La Russa was a special advisor to Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox won a World Series during his run in 2018.

The best thing about La Russa is his intensity.

La Russa wasn’t up in the press box eating chocolate cake like Ray Romano in a classic episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.’’

He was working. Even if he wasn’t managing anymore.

La Russa was locked in watching the game and you could tell the fire of managing still burned brightly within him. Good for La Russa. We will see if he can handle today’s ballplayers but through the years, he was able to handle some big names like Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols.

I don’t think that will be a problem for him.

“Players want to be led, players want to be better,’’ one baseball man explained to me Saturday. “They don’t need you to be their friend. They have plenty of friends.’’

That is a brilliant point and too many baseball people look the other way now when they need to come down on a player for half-assing it. You can’t be someone the players know they can get over on because in the end, if you allow that to happen, it will happen.

Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa in his early managerial years

La Russa and Hinch have dugout cred. Now, Hinch is 30 years younger than La Russa but he sees the game through a catcher’s eyes and that will help the pitching staff, especially the young Tigers pitchers like Casey Mize and lefty Tarik Skubal.

Age is only a number, folks. If you stay in touch, have a sense of humor and clearly this Hall of Fame manager is not afraid to put his reputation on the line for an encore.

Here is some information the National Baseball Hall of Fame sent me about old guy managers and I like to check in with the Hall of Fame whenever I can. It just feels right.

At 76, La Russa – born on Oct. 4, 1944 – will become the third-oldest manager in history, trailing only Connie Mack (at 87 years of age when he managed the A’s in 1950) and McKeon (who was 80 when he managed the Marlins in 2011).

La Russa last managed the White Sox in 1986, meaning there will be a 35-year gap between seasons with the same team. The previous record was set by Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, who managed the Tigers from 1929-33 then returned to Detroit in 1955 and 1956 – a span of 22 seasons; it was then tied by Paul Richards, who managed the White Sox from 1951-54 and then returned to the White Sox in 1976.

La Russa has all the experience in the world and wants to put it to good use. Dusty Baker did the same coming back to manage the Cheatin’ Astros.

And here is what everybody is missing when they criticize such moves. In a way, these managers can offer a fresh approach in that they are more like a grandfather than a father figure to the players. That’s pretty cool.

Who doesn’t love grandfathers. Grandfathers Rule, too.

La Russa offered an intelligent answer to the question of Analytics Rule.

“We were always information seekers,’’ he said of his 33 years of managing and the use of analytics. “You take the value of that information and it gives you a better chance of success. But once the game starts, it’s a very volatile experience, they are players, not machines. You watch the game and how to put people in there to win.’’

Let me repeat: Watch the game.

Bruce Bochy did that during his years with the Giants when he won three World Championships and should not be long before Bochy returns to managing.

Old is just another word for experience and no one had experience like Connie Mack. Interestingly, Mack was a different kind of manager. In an era when managers were extremely hard on players, he managed with kindness. Here is how the HOF described his style.

 Known as “The Tall Tactician,” Mack finally retired from the game of baseball after the 1950 season at the age of 87. In his unprecedented 53 years as a manager, Mack won 3,731 games – a feat that is unlikely to ever be matched. He received the Bok Award for his service to Philadelphia in 1929, which was a recognition typically saved for artists and business professionals. In 1937, Mack was part of the second class elected into the Hall of Fame. 

“Humanity is the keystone that holds nations and men together,” Mack once said. “When that collapses, the whole structure crumbles. This is as true of baseball teams as any other pursuit in life.’’

It’s style and substance that matter… no matter the age.

La Russa has seen all types of players and personalities. If he shows players that he will help make them more productive winning players, he will be a success. That’s the bottom line.

The same thing for Hinch. He has a World Series win. It is tainted but it’s a win. If he can learn from his mistakes he will succeed with an up and coming team. The White Sox made the “everyone in the pool” postseason this year, the Tigers have a ways to go but if 14 teams are invited next year and in future years, they are not that far from a form of success with young talent on the rise.

Detroit is a great baseball town too, and I root for great baseball towns. Throw in the Old English “D” on the Tigers uniform and you have a team that should be in the postseason. They look too good not to be in the postseason. Detroit is a gritty city that deserves another World Championship at some point. The Tigers haven’t won a World Series since 1984 when Kirk Gibson was the star and Sparky Anderson was 50 – but looked 76 – was the manager.

A.J. Hinch

Hinch (seen here while playing for the Tigers) brings a former catcher's mindset to his latest managerial role

Growing up I went to numerous Tigers games at Yankee Stadium because my father was a Tigers fan. Seeing Al Kaline, Frank Lary and Norm Cash was a treat. In my mind, the Tigers remain one of the special teams in the American League.

Owner Mike Ilitch never won a championship and died in 2017. His son Christopher is now in pursuit of his father’s dream.

“Hinch really is a good young manager,’’ said a baseball evaluator I trust. “He understands where the value is in analytics, and that’s important. He knows it is not the be all and end all but there is value.’’

Sure, both hires can be questioned. But if you step back there really is a lot of common sense behind both moves. La Russa and Hinch know how to win and there is nothing like getting one last chance that La Russa is getting, and nothing like getting a second chance like Hinch is getting.

Managing is a whole different game right now. Baseball is at a crossroads.

Are you going to allow your manager to actually manage or is he going to be another nerd puppet, pulling the strings and having a manager selling his baseball soul to the analytics crowd and the puppet masters just to have one of those 30 great jobs?

Manage the players and most importantly manage the game in front of you. That lesson was driven home in Game 6. La Russa has done it his way forever with input from the numbers. Hinch was following the same path until he let the players and others concoct an electronics sign-stealing operation and he didn’t stand up to fight for what was right and did not stand up and fight for his profession.

He admits now that was a mistake. He is motivated to do it right now.

“Wrong is wrong,” Hinch said, “and I was very wrong.”

My advice to La Russa and Hinch is simple. This game needs true managers. Some people in power are beginning to realize that. Don’t shirk from that responsibility, and after being away from the job, don’t be happy to just hold onto the job.

Managers don’t hold on. They lead and let go.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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