Where is La Russa’s legacy being passed? – Part one

Sports Illustrated
’s Jon Heyman has published his yearly take on the top managers in Major League Baseball. After a year at number two in the rankings, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tony La Russa is back on top here in 2009.

Key reasons cited are his roster management, teams that play hard and results. Heyman also wonders out loud about La Russa’s contract status because of his relationship with GM John Mozeliak without noting the manager’s long-standing support from ownership. Another glaring omission was any acknowledgement of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Albert Pujols, as the MVP relates to the manager’s future in the Gateway City.

Among the often-heralded MLB managerial veterans who fell outside Heyman’s current top ten are Jim Leyland and Bobby Cox.

One rising managerial star I particularly admire is Tampa’s Joe Maddon. What’s not to like? Maddon has been an avid Cardinals fan virtually his entire life. Heyman notes his second-ranked skipper Mike Scioscia of the Angels is Maddon’s mentor. Scioscia is also a strong supporter of Don Wakamatsu of the surprising 2009 Seattle Mariners after the younger man coached in the Halos organization.

That reminded me of something that has bothered me for some time.

I am not quibbling about La Russa being among the top managers year upon year, nor am I particularly worried about his contract status.

What I have wondered about is the lack of successful Major League managers groomed by La Russa.

In his 14th season managing St. Louis and 31st year in the big leagues, the skipper turns 65 years of age this fall. Though he has not shared his future plans publicly, I am among those who believe he will continue to manage at least until he collects the 284 wins needed to pass John McGraw with the second-highest victory total in the history of the game. If so, that would keep La Russa in a big league dugout somewhere for at least three more seasons after this one.

Just about any article that mentions La Russa also gives proper credit to his Tonto, pitching coach Dave Duncan. In an article I will be running on Scout.com starting on Friday, La Russa makes this interesting observation about Duncan: “He wants to coach longer than I want to manage.”

Content with his role and disinterested in putting up with the “B.S.” that goes with being the man in front, Duncan is the quintessential sidekick – the best at what he does, but with no interest in becoming the lead performer himself.

One might say that about almost all of Tony’s coaching staff. While each is an excellent coach in his own right, they don’t seem to be on the managerial fast track. Instead of taking on hard chargers as he was early in his career, La Russa has primarily surrounded himself with contemporaries, baseball lifers seemingly content to stay right where they are.

Of them, only hitting coach Hal McRae has been a major league manager in the past and after speaking with him about it, I am quite sure he won’t be back in that role. Again, McRae says it is primarily driven by distaste for the B.S. inherent in the job.

First base coach Dave McKay has been with La Russa for 24 years and has always been a coach. Bench coach Joe Pettini once served as the Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator, but hasn’t managed in the minors since 1996. Ten-year bullpen coach Marty Mason has always been a pitching-related coach – never a manager.

That leaves Jose Oquendo as the lone potential exception and the only coach on the staff under 50 years old. Though he has just one season as a professional manager, way back in 1998 in short-season ball, Jose has gained international experience in winter ball and in the World Baseball Classic representing his homeland of Puerto Rico. Renowned as an infield teacher, “Secret Weapon” has interviewed for managerial openings in San Diego and Seattle, but has yet to be given a shot.

Don’t get me wrong – the continuity of coaches is one important factor that helps set the Cardinals apart in their excellence. Still, I can’t help but wonder to which future managers La Russa has been passing his considerable knowledge down.

Shouldn’t one important measure of coaching greatness be the number of descendents a manager/head coach fosters?

Not every manager can be like the NFL’s Bill Walsh, whose coaching tree is legendary. Championship coaches like Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel, Sam Wyche, Dennis Green and George Seifert all received their starts under Walsh, with them later spawning another couple of dozen NFL head coaches.

The La Russa football connection is in front of mind as Tony is best buddies with another pair of NFL coaching greats, Bill Parcells and his one-time protégé, Bill Belichick. Despite having put in just nine years as the leader of the Pats, Belichick has launched the careers of at least six NFL head coaches. His protégés include three current top dogs – Eric Mangini (Cleveland), Josh McDaniels (Denver) and Jim Schwartz (Detroit).

Closer to home, Cox may be considered La Russa’s closest comparable, both in terms of time in the job and managerial victories. Since 1978, Cox developed current MLB managers Fredi Gonzalez and Cito Gaston along with former skippers Ned Yost and Jimy Williams. Cox also has his own version of in-house successor-in-waiting Oquendo in hitting coach and former Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton.

In Rob Rains’ new book,“Tony La Russa: Man on a Mission”, the importance of certain individuals in La Russa’s own early development jumps off the page. Specifically, keys were Loren Babe, his managerial mentor and then-White Sox general manager Roland Hemond, who gave La Russa his first big league job.

In turn, where are the examples of future Major League managers whose careers were started by working under La Russa?

In part two of this article, we will review La Russa’s coaching staffs since he was initially hired as a major league skipper in 1979 and focus on the subset who later became first-time MLB managers.

There have been only two in 31 years.