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Mudville: May 17, 2024 5:23 pm PDT

Age Over Analytics

The old geezers passed the test.

That would be Tony La Russa, whose White Sox clinched the AL Central this week and Dusty Baker, whose Astros are on the verge of clinching the AL West.

At the time of their hirings, many Nerds, whether they be in major league front offices or in the media, did not think much of their chances for success. And, of course, Baker and La Russa will never get the credit they deserve for holding their teams together when so many critics wanted them to fail.

Instead, Dusty and Tony shoved. That’s The Story at BallNine.

Good for them, good for baseball people no matter the age. Perhaps their success will convince more owners to go with age over analytics in the dugout.

Perhaps more owners will go with substance over shallowness. You know, the guy who is supposed to be in charge but has no clue what is happening with this team. He is either lying or is an idiot.

Shallow managers seem to rule the day these days because they tell the President of Baseball Operations and his minions what they want to hear. There is no pushback, no independent thinking and no deep understanding of the game like both Baker and La Russa possess.

Baker is 72. La Russa will turn 77 just as the postseason gets underway. It will be a Battle of the Aged if the Astros and White Sox match up in October.

“There are times a manager has to ruffle feathers. La Russa and Baker are both big on accountability and also protecting their players when needed.”

Here is your crazy baseball fact of the day. Who would have thought that Torey Lovullo, who “manages’’ the Diamondbacks and has piled up 105 losses so far this season, would get an extension before Baker, who has proven he knows how to get his teams to the postseason time after time?

Good job D-Backs, I’m sure your fans are thrilled with that move especially having watched their team compile a 29-47 record this season at Chase Field. That’s a no-accountability move right there. For the record, the D-Backs are playing at a .318 clip and are 51 games back.

Baker rescued the Astros from themselves.

Thrown into the fire after the Astros electronic sign-stealing scandal last season, he brought a calming voice and hand to the team, some honesty, and has allowed the players’ ability to shine through. That is not easy to do.

At some point, the Astros have to come around and give an extension to Baker. In true Dusty fashion, he rolls with the punches but also has the innate ability to make his point. Asked about his contract situation this week, Baker said, “I’ve said it before, I don’t want to be a distraction to the team. My main thing is to take care of my guys here.’’

Baker has been a lame-duck manager before.

“I’ve seen this a lot of times,’’ he said, “and it kind of makes you wonder as to why, but hey, it is what it is.’’

This from the first manager to lead five different teams to the playoffs, but has never won a World Series as the Skipper. He took the Giants to a Game 7 in 2002 but lost to the Angels. As a player, he won the World Series in 1981 as a Dodger. Over his 19-year career Baker produced 1,981 hits, 1,013, RBI, 242 home runs and batted .278. He knows all angles of the baseball stage. He is 12th all-time in manager wins. La Russa is second, trailing only Connie Mack.

Dusty Baker is headed back to the postseason. (Photo: F. Carter Smith)

Astros owner Jim Crane owes Baker a big financial thank you, and a public thank you too.

Both Baker and La Russa have shown they can survive and thrive in the analytics world of today, using analytics as a tool – not as the Baseball Bible.

Remember all the criticism of La Russa took earlier this season after he had the audacity to be the Fun Police and point out to his own player Yermin Mercedes that was not a good thing to do; swing on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout against the Twins with a Twins position player pitching, Willians Astudillo.

Of course, the big issue was Mercedes missing the take sign and immediately La Russa sprang into action, walking up the dugout steps, yelling, “take, take, take.’’ Noted La Russa, “The whole time he was running the bases I’m out there and I’m upset because that is not a time to swing 3-0… There will be consequences he will have to endure within our family.’’

Heads exploded because La Russa had the guts to demand a certain level of respect for the game from his players. Imagine that.

Meanwhile, later in the year Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez were running around the bases for the under-achieving Mets giving the thumbs down sign to their own fans – that will show them! This was after Lindor’s crazy rat-raccoon lie after his early season fight with Jeff McNeil.

There were people in the media, and I just read such a comment yesterday, who criticized Baez for telling the truth when asked the question about his thumbs down.

That’s the kind of media you want to read I’m sure as a baseball fan. “Hey, I want the players to openly lie to me and I will not question it,’’ the hot-take writer might as well wrote.

Hear no evil. See no evil.

Give me a break.

Tony La Russa is looking to manage his third team to a World Series title. (Photo: Rick Scuteri / USATODAY)

The late Tommy Lasorda once described the art of managing this way: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it. But if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.’’

Wise words, which brings us back to La Russa, who had the confidence in himself to criticize Mercedes for his selfish comments.

“I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn’t,’’ La Russa explained. “He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respect the game, respect the opponents. And he’s got to respect the signs. When he gets the take sign, he takes… It’s a learning experience.’’

It sure is and managers are supposed to be teachers, not just a conduit for the GM to run Nerd numbers to the players and do whatever the GM wants done, and take the fall when things go wrong with scripted pitching changes. There are times a manager has to ruffle feathers. La Russa and Baker are both big on accountability and also protecting their players when needed.

There was a perfect example of that this week by Baker that went a little under the radar but was brilliant in his performance.

In his postgame press conference after a one-run loss to the Angels, when in the sixth inning Shohei Ohtani walked on a 3-2 slider that could have easily been called strike three from Lance McCullers Jr., Ohtani stole second base but appeared to be the third out of the inning. The umpire didn’t see it that way and as we are seeing more and more – replay didn’t see it that way, even though the video does not lie – and it sure looked like Ohtani was tagged before he touched second base. After a walk, a two-run double proved to be the difference.

So here is what Baker said, a lesson for all managers out there, this is how you get your point across, protect your player, and more importantly put your player in a better state of mind after a tough loss. It’s a win-win move that should help McCullers in the future because you don’t want pitchers to sulk about the past, you want them to go brazenly into their next start with confidence, especially if they figure to be your Game 1 postseason starter.

Dusty Baker at bat with the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Photo: Rich Pilling / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

It’s also something the Nerds would not fully understand unless there was a Baseball to Nerd translator in the room.

First, Baker praised McCullers’ performance. “Hey, man he was awesome,’’ Baker said. “Everybody was upset that we thought that pitch on Ohtani was a strike. That would have gotten us out of the inning. Then when Ohtani stole second base it appeared we had him because Carlos (Correa) made a heck of a tag and it looked like he was out there, too. It’s tough when you are having to face extra guys and Jack Mayfield, who hurt us all series, and even last time, that set the stage for his double. Had that call on Ohtani both times (gone the other way) Lance’s pitch count was low enough and probably completed the seventh.’’

So, in one postgame comment, Baker told the truth, which is paramount, he thought both calls by the umpires were wrong, and praised the performance of his pitcher, who wound up the loser and also pointed out the tremendous ability of his star shortstop.

That’s leadership. That is how it’s done.

Baker revered UCLA coaching legend John Wooden and through the years we have had conversations about Wooden’s genius of being able to communicate in a positive fashion yet still demand discipline. It’s a lost art in today’s world and certainly is a lost art in baseball. La Russa has the same ability.

Both men will do it their way and have the courage of their convictions. I would call it a baseball faith that cannot be shattered no matter the outcome. Young managers, as they progress, can learn from both men and many have through the years. Certainly, in San Francisco, Gabe Kapler has made adjustments from what he learned in his time in Philadelphia. Kevin Cash, I believe, is the best young manager in the game and also believes in a set of baseball standards. Players can have fun, they can do their thing but there also is a code of conduct that is expected and when decisions are made, even if it means you come out of the game, it’s for the team’s benefit.

As I have stated many times before and yet it still eludes some people, the Rays are the best at cultivating analytics with tremendous player development people, making the players better and also keeping a rotation of players where there is a buy-in to the Rays way. They have made the postseason for three straight seasons for the first time in their history. They continue to burn through pitching arms, but it all works for them because they find something in a player and take it to the next level. You can’t do that without having a manager who is fully engaged in the process and also has power in the process, he can’t just be a puppet for the Nerds. Players see that immediately.

Tony La Russa in Spring Training, 1973. He made one appearance for the Cubs that season, pinch running for Ron Santo and scoring a run.

One of Tony La Russa’s coaches is Jerry Narron, 65, a late hire but a vital hire. He has a ton of managerial and coaching experience and is a wizard working with catchers. Instruction on the major league level is more important than ever, and both La Russa and Baker allow their coaches to coach. La Russa also has Miguel Cairo as his bench coach, Joe McEwing and Frank Menechino on his staff so there is a New York vibe to this tremendous staff.

This marked the White Sox’ first division championship in 13 years, and after going through ups and downs during the season, La Russa has his bullpen working to perfection and that will be huge in the postseason with Craig Kimbrel, Liam Hendriks & Co. “If we can get the lead going into the last third of the game, that’s a real asset, what we’ve got out there,’’ La Russa said of his bullpen.

After the White Sox clinched the division, La Russa offered some revealing comments about the game and the challenge of any postseason, never an easy task. La Russa literally came out of the Hall of Fame to manage the White Sox, a team he managed from 1979-86. He owns three World Series championship rings, one with the 1989 A’s, and two with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.

There is some heavy knowledge dropped here, read carefully.

“To come back to the White Sox, this is like Fantasy Island,’’ La Russa said. “It’s like you never thought I could get this opportunity, especially with the club being this good and here we are the Division Champs. The thing you experience over the years, winning never gets old, it gets better.’’

Managers age. Winning doesn’t age. It keeps you young.

“It just gets better,’’ La Russa explained, “because you appreciate more what everybody had to do to get here. That’s the message for all the guys, the first timers, you know. It gets better. In fact, it can get better this year. If we play well in the Division Series.’’

Win that series and it is onto the ALCS. Win that series and it’s back to the World Series for La Russa for the first time since 2013.

The White Sox have a challenge ahead of them and La Russa knows it. “We cannot afford to lose any kind of edge,’’ he said. “A lot of it is just a mental commitment and I’m certain we will make it.’’

La Russa is blessed to have two super talented cornerstones in his lineup every day in shortstop Tim Anderson, 28, and first baseman Jose Abreu, 34. La Russa was especially thrilled for Abreu.

“You really have to see him every day to understand just how great, great he is, how special, special he is,’’ La Russa noted. “It’s remarkable. We had a little get together last night, and I repeated to him what I have said to him several times, he’s right there next to Albert Pujols, which is the best compliment I can give a player. I know he’s excited about October. He’s beloved by his teammates because of what he gives them and puts into everything that has to do with getting our team a chance to compete. I’m happy for everybody but they all have a special place in their hearts for Jose.’’

This is a manager who knows his team inside and out, knows the personality of his team and not just a bunch of numbers.

La Russa then made this strongest of points.

“We know the truth,’’ said La Russa, who came to the majors with the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 18 in 1963, and has spent a lifetime in the game to research the point. “We know that anybody that is good enough to get into the postseason is good enough to win three series, so we will take our best shot.’’

Dusty Baker, 72, and Tony La Russa, 77, know how to take their best shot, at any age.

45+ 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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