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Zuba: More than just managers (Dec. 11)

By Samantha Zuba | Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Let’s talk about baseball coaches for a moment.

You know, those guys who stand in the dugout and wave their hands around, allegedly signally something to their players.

On Monday, three of the greatest Major League Baseball managers of all time were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were selected unanimously by the Hall of Fame’s Expansion Era Committee and will be formally inducted in a ceremony next July. Although a committee voted them into the Hall, public opinion could have just as easily done the job.

It’s easy to see why these three managers are famously great. They are among the winningest managers in MLB history, and they’ve won nine Manager of the Year awards combined. LaRussa coached his teams to three World Series titles. Torre won four championships with the New York Yankees, and Cox won one World Series with the Atlanta Braves. 

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to understand the scope of what baseball managers actually do – besides making wacky hand signals from the dugout steps. They don’t call plays the way a football coach does, but baseball managers are a different type of coach.

We can start with the fact that they’re called “managers” and not “head coaches.” Baseball has base coaches, hitting coaches and pitching coaches, but the manager does more than organize a hierarchy of more specialized coaches. Managers control every aspect of the game.

LaRussa was famous for toting around giant binders filled with statistics on opposing teams. He revolutionized the use of the bullpen because he worked statistical matchups in an exceedingly exact manner. LaRussa’s relief pitchers might face only one batter each, but that was their task for the game, and if they did their jobs right, the team won. 

At the end of the day, players have to execute what their managers ask them to do for the team to succeed, but managers play a uniquely powerful role in positioning their players like chess pieces. Few sports afford coaches the opportunity to so closely oversee the minutia of a game.

Some commentators argue that Torre only succeeded because he had the right players, courtesy of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and his deep pockets. In baseball, however, it’s not enough just to have the right pieces – a manager has to know how to use them, and Torre did. He drew on his own playing experience to relate well with his players, and he managed with class.

Baseball is all about the details, and a talented but mismanaged team won’t win. Teams with a revolving managerial door understand this. 

The Chicago Cubs will introduce yet another new manager next season, and although the organization has featured potent combinations of young talent in recent years, it hasn’t won much because it can’t secure consistent management for its inexperienced players. There’s hope for the Cubs if they can find the right, lasting formula.

Cox provided security for the Braves for 20 straight years upon his return to Atlanta from a short stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Braves flourished with his steady hand at the helm.

Cox broke John McGraw’s infamous record for most all-time ejections, as his temper could be unpredictable, but his baseball intellect never flagged. Cox led the Braves to five National League Pennants and 14 straight National League East Division titles.

LaRussa, Torre and Cox consistently achieved success by coaching a sport in which a person who succeeds one-third of the time is one of the game’s best players. Managers have extraordinary control over the layout of the field because of baseball’s stop-and-go nature, but there are countless bad ways for a ball to bounce.

Each of these great managers took bad breaks in stride and found ways to win at an extraordinary pace.

Cheers to the greats.


Contact Samantha Zuba at szuba@nd.edu.
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.