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Dan Bickley

Tony La Russa perfect manager to bring more old school back to baseball

FILE - In this July 22, 2014, file photo, Arizona Diamondbacks Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa smiles as he talks about his upcoming induction ceremony into the Baseball Hall of Fame during a news conference in Phoenix. (AP Photo/File)

Tony La Russa, your destiny is calling: Put on a hat. Make Baseball Great Again.

Don’t scoff. He’s the perfect old man for the job. The Blake Snell Incident represents Peak Analytics, the night when the seam-head nerds lost their parasitic grip on baseball. It has made the Old School fashionable once more, paving the way for La Russa’s appointment as new White Sox manager, almost a decade after his last stint as manager.

He’s 76 years old but fluent in Spanish, inheriting a team with no shortage of Latin-born stars. His fierce brand of loyalty plays much better in the clubhouse than it did as an executive in Arizona, where he hired his former ace (Dave Stewart) and once stormed into an enemy broadcast booth.

Don’t worry about his age. La Russa is one year younger than Joe Biden, two years older than Donald Trump. If a man in his mid-70’s can run a country, he can certainly run a baseball team. Aging managers have also proven to be sage hires in the past, offering the grandfatherly wisdom that petulant and passionate clubhouses often lack.

It’s important to note that La Russa wasn’t hired to save Major League Baseball. This was a make-good, heartfelt gesture from a cold-blooded owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who once approved the firing of La Russa as White Sox manager in 1986. Reinsdorf later called the maneuver the worst mistake in his ownership tenure.

Reinsdorf is also re-hiring La Russa after the airing of a 10-part series on his six-time NBA champion Bulls, when his callous handling of head coach Phil Jackson cost him Michael Jordan.

In other words, this is personal.

But La Russa is also re-emerging at an important crossroads in baseball history, at a time when World Series ratings are in the tank, when the soul of baseball is being strangled by analytics.

We’ve seen the impact of Big Data and MIT-trained executives; defensive shifts that discourage ground balls; home run swings that usually produce strikeouts; power arms that routinely reach 100 miles per hour; and bullpen games that diminish the role of star pitcher.

We’ve seen too much math and not enough art. Too much managing and not enough playing. Too much science and spin rates, and not nearly enough madness. The new game is even more boring than the old game, which already exceeded three hours per contest, which already teetered on the brink of irrelevance (at best) and extinction (at worst).

Baseball has become insufferable. You can go a full 20 minutes without a whiff of action during most baseball games. The inactivity is mostly blamed on the analytics, and when Rays manager Kevin Cash lifted a dominant starter from a pivotal World Series game after 73 pitches, after striking out nine of 18 hitters, you could almost feel the sport buckling at its knees. Like the tilting of a pinball machine. Like the breaking of a guitar string mid-solo.

When La Russa and the Diamondbacks parted ways, it was widely accepted that the team needed less grit and more algorithms, less scouts and more analytics. His successors, Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo, have succeeded wildly in doing more with less.

But there are times when the Diamondbacks also feel constricted and oppressed. Chained by too much information and too much organizational input. Like actors who can’t deviate from their lines. And as much as I respect the current regime, I’ll be cheering for La Russa to win big in his final hurrah, with a White Sox roster that’s ready to win now.

Baseball could use a little more of its past. More soul and fewer numbers. More Caddyshack and fewer Beautiful Minds.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier