In the history of baseball, exactly two managers – Connie Mack and John McGraw – have won more games than Tony La Russa. La Russa won three World Series and was named Manager of the Year four times.
But La Russa, who was introduced Thursday by the Red Sox as their vice president and special assistant to president of baseball operations, maintained that he’s not coming here to peer over the shoulder of rookie manager Alex Cora.
“I’ll be a resource for people in the organization, especially those in uniform,’’ said La Russa in a conference call with reporters. “In Alex’s case, I knew him as a player and we actually interviewed him in Arizona (when La Russa served as chief baseball officer with the Diamondbacks). He’s a very bright young man that’s going to be an outstanding manager. I’m going to be very sensitive to his position, is the best way to put it.
“Being down there (in the dugout), he's the one who’s got to establish himself with the major league team and his staff. I’m going to just be available. When he asks, I’ll give him my best answer. But I’m not going to get in his way or try to influence him because I know that he knows the direction he wants to go. I’ll just be a resource.’’
That’s the proper approach. And it’s a good sign that La Russa understands that it would be easy for people to quickly paint Cora as a mere apprentice to La Russa, or worse, a puppet of the front office.
Cora needs to establish himself without undue interference from above. It would be silly to not take advantage of La Russa’s experience and expertise. At the same time, it would be a mistake to have La Russa too involved.
As it is, as soon as the Red Sox hit their first five-game losing streak in 2018, there will be suggestions that La Russa is hovering as an in-house replacement. That’s a lazy narrative – green rookie skipper to be replaced by wily dugout veteran – but it won’t stop it from being perpetrated.
La Russa seems especially mindful of this potential issue. In Arizona last year, he deliberately kept a low profile with first-year manager Torey Lovullo so as to not confuse others about the proper chain of command or sending mixed messages. He learned, as he put it, “how to be a resource without getting in the way.’’
“The idea is to be sure that Alex and his major league coaches are clearly in charge of the major league situation,’’ said La Russa. “They’re the people who are going to be there every day, creating relationships with their players. Any of us that are on the periphery, you’re there to help without getting in the way.
“I have a great relationship with Torey. We would talk whenever he thought there was something he wanted to ask. I rarely went in the clubhouse. Torey and his coaches would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come down more,’ and I think that gets in the way. You don’t want players confused about who’s making decisions and who’s talking strategy. So I think you stay out of the way and you contribute when you’re asked.’’
Dombrowski echoed those same thoughts, noting that La Russa “wants to be around an organization in an important role, but he doesn’t want to be the manager, general manager or farm director.’’
Dombrowski added that the idea of having La Russa around as an option was broached with Cora during the interview process.
“We don’t have anybody in our front office that’s managed at the major league level,’’ said Dombrowski, “that Alex could come to and say, ‘What did you think about this move?’ or ‘What did you think about that move?’ We can talk baseball, we talk circumstances, but Tony has that knowledge that we don’t. And Alex is a sponge. He wants as much information as he possibly can.’’
All of which sounds good in theory. Now, the trick is to implement it while allowing Cora to retain primacy in the dugout.