Legendary Manager Tony LaRussa will be up for election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 when the 16-member Expansion Era committee assesses his candidacy. LaRussa’s credentials are impeccable, with few comparable contemporaries in modern baseball history. He is widely considered a lock for induction. His resume which includes 2,728 wins (3 rd all time), three world championships, four Manager of the Year Awards, and a lofty .536 career winning percentage support such an assumption. However, one must wonder why LaRussa’s inflated achievements are not under the same scrutiny as those of the steroid alleged or admitted players who contributed greatly to his on field successes.
LaRussa is fully cognizant of the existence of and impact from the steroid era. During an interview in August on John Feinstein’s radio program, he acknowledges as much in stating, “As long as there’s competition, players have always looked for an edge”. LaRussa goes on to note, “It’s never been as serious or illegal as this, but there’s been all kinds of stuff where guys have tried to enhance their competitive edge. It’s a natural instinct that you have to fight because the game should be played with sportsmanship. I’m pained, like anybody would be about that 10-year or so period that we went through.” LaRussa’s comments hardly provide any stunning revelations, but do raise the question of how much of this “illegal” activity he was aware of while he excelled managing during MLB’s steroid era.
To the satisfaction of baseball purists, or those just in support of fairness, the steroid era has been treated harshly in Hall of Fame voting as immense scrutiny has been applied to each candidate whether fully just or not. If an error in judgment is being made, it’s consciously being made on the side of exclusivity. Roger Clemens’ 37.6% and Barry Bonds’ 36.2% 2013 vote totals graphically illustrate this notion. The generation of cheaters and liars has left an indelible stain on baseball’s history. The games unparalleled reliance on statistics as historical embodiments of achievement have been tarnished beyond reconcilable repair and the Baseball Hall of Fame writers have acknowledged this by excluding those whose accomplishments were embellished inordinately by enhancing drugs.
Will LaRussa be treated similarly when his candidacy is assessed by the Expansion Era panel? LaRussa not only was undeniably aided by the performances of admitted cheaters including Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, but LaRussa’s direct link to suspected and known cheaters span the majority of his career. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that LaRussa directly cheated in any regard nor assisted his players with their advantage gaining activities. No such suggestion is being made here. However, his record was substantially benefitted by the performances of his prodigious users.
Mark McGwire hit over 490 of his 583 asterisked home runs under LaRussa’s leadership. McGwire’s presence corresponds to nearly 1,200 of the manager’s career victories. Jose Canseco hit nearly half of his 462 drug influenced bombs for LaRussa contributing to nearly 600 wins. Oakland’s 1989 World Championship team featured McGwire and saw quality contributions from Canseco en route to the title.
LaRussa, despite holding a law degree and being widely heralded as a genius, will continue to rationalize his ignorance (at the time) of players’ drug using activities while he managed during the steroid era. His plea of ignorance is of course categorically preposterous, bordering on downright insulting considering the stark physical transformations and resulting statistical anomalies of his players. LaRussa’s case will be aided by HOF committee members like Tim Kurkjian and Tom Verducci in rationalizing the universal oblivion that players, managers and writers succumbed to during this period. Kurkjian and Verducci’s input is suspect as both flourished as they moved to new and more lucrative media platforms resulting from the game’s growing popularity during the steroid era. LaRussa’s admission of knowledge or suspicion of the steroid use is irrelevant to debunking his legitimacy for induction next to the likes of Connie Mack, Tom Lasorda, and Sparky Anderson among others. The sheer paramount impact these players had on LaRussa’s career accomplishments is more than enough to exclude him from induction at this time.
Beyond LaRussa’s players who have publicly admitted to their indiscretions regarding performance enhancing drugs, the proverbial elephant in the room Albert Pujols, must also be included in any open conversation and debate regarding LaRussa’s HOF credentials. After all, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell’s Hall candidacies remain under fierce examination despite little tangible evidence to clumsily lump them with Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire. Yet the voting writers do. Again, their position is to err on the side of caution for now which is unquestionably the proper way to proceed at this time.
For now, we’ll concede that Pujols’ legitimacy is precarious at best as suspicion is not substantiated at this time. Perhaps he will accept Jack Clark’s request for a lie detector test to disprove his guilt once and for all. That remains to be seen at this time. Many prolific users denied allegations for years before they could no longer continue their charade. Pujols may truly be the greatest hitter of his generation or just another of the many who opted to cheat within baseball’s permissive, oblivious climate. The mounting suspicion should be reason for pause. Pujols hit 445 home runs for LaRussa assisting nearly 1,000 wins and two World Championships (2006, 2011) while center piecing LaRussa’s lineups.
If eventually Pujols proves mortal like many of his contemporaries, then over 2,000 of LaRussa’s wins were gained via the contributions of McGwire and Pujols.
The intent in presenting this position is not to vilify LaRussa. It is merely an attempt at levity, an avoidance of blatant hypocrisy and inconsistency, when considering the speed of his inclusion into the Hall of Fame. Committee member and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has been publicly adamant in his condemnation of steroid users. Hopefully, he’ll maintain that position when considering the achievements of managers like LaRussa who realized a large degree of their successes on the inordinately broad shoulders of their illegally enhanced star players. For the players, a standard has been set and precedence been made in the HOF voting process. LaRussa was an innovative strategic manager. Barry Bonds was a daunting hitter. Roger Clemens was the best right handed pitcher of his time. Appropriately, neither player’s Hall induction appears imminent. LaRussa’s perhaps inevitable enshrinement should too wait until time reveals the full legitimacy of his gaudy statistical credentials.