By Marc Normandin
Trying to pick the best from among the three managers being inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend will get you nowhere. It's a matter of preference in a lot of ways -- either because Joe Torre, Tony La Russa or Bobby Cox managed your favorite team, or because they managed one you despised less than others. What is not a question, however, is that all three achieved greatness during their time at the helms of their respective clubs -- and it's fitting for these three giants of their era to enter Cooperstown at the same time.
Joe Torre's induction into the Hall of Fame is well overdue in some ways. He was an excellent player who spent 18 years in the majors (from 1960 through 1977) and hit .297/.365/.452 with essentially three separate careers as a catcher, third baseman and first baseman. If wins above replacement is your thing, he finished with 58 -- more than Hall of Famers like Jim Rice, Willie Stargell, Bobby Doerr and literally dozens of other hitters. Despite this, he received just 5.3 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 1983, and peaked at 22.2 percent of the vote in his final ballot appearance 15 years later. While he's still not officially inducted as a player, when you combine his accomplishments on the field and in the dugout together, you get one of the most decorated and successful baseball careers of all time.
Torre won a Most Valuable Player award in 1971 while leading the league in hitting at .363 (his complete line was .363/.421/.555 for a 171 OPS+). He made nine All-Star teams, received MVP votes in seven seasons overall and received a Gold Glove in 1965. And while he wasn't inducted into Cooperstown, surviving the ballot for the full 15 years is a feat of its own. He never made the postseason as a player, but he made up for it as a manager: Things didn't work out while leading the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, but when he reached the Yankees in 1996, everything changed. Torre led the Bombers to World Series victories in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, and brought them to Game 7 before suffering defeat in 2001 against the Diamondbacks. In addition, the Yankees made the playoffs in all 12 of Torre's seasons as manager.
He didn't do it by himself, of course. The Yankees had a roster loaded with some all-time greats in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, as well as plenty of high-quality core pieces like Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and more. Torre also benefited from the Yankees' expansive wallets, with the team bringing in the likes of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and many others over the years to join forces with what was already a formidable lineup and rotation. Still, he had to wrangle all of these personalities and deal with the ever-expectant New York media daily over the course of a dozen seasons, and the result was a World Series victory one-third of the time. Let's not forget he also made the NLCS twice in three tries with the Dodgers in his post-Yankees career, before hanging up his uniform after the 2010 campaign.
The players had a lot to do with it, but the Yankees under Joe Girardi have had plenty of greatness surrounding them, too -- yet they haven't had anywhere near the success. Again, that's not all on Girardi, but Torre deserves some credit for what occurred during his time in charge.
Bobby Cox can relate. He'll be inducted this weekend alongside two starting pitchers who were central to his own success in Atlanta: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. As with Torre, though, we can't take Cox's fine job of managing out of the equation by crediting the players with everything that went well. Yes, the Braves notoriously only won a single World Series under Cox in 1995, but they reached the postseason in 14 consecutive playoffs from 1991 through 2005 -- 1994 doesn't count, since there were no playoffs thanks to the strike -- and then once more for good measure in his final season in the dugout in 2010. The Braves lost four World Series in Cox's career, and that might seem off, but consider this: The Royals made the playoffs exactly zero times during Bobby Cox's entire run with the Braves. (In fact, they still haven't reached the playoff to this day, in a drought that stretches back to 1985.) The Braves might have lost four of five World Series during that stretch, but they made it to five World Series to begin with. Royals fans would kill for that kind of disappointment, if you'd only tell them where to point the knife.
That was Cox's second run with the team; he started his managerial career with the Braves back in 1978, finishing no higher than fourth before moving on to the Blue Jays after the 1981 campaign. He was in charge of the 1985 Blue Jays -- who lost to the Royals in the ALCS -- before leaving the managing game to become the Braves' GM, at least until he was their in-season replacement as manager in 1990. From there, a managerial legend was born.
Then there's Tony La Russa. La Russa has plenty of controversy surrounding him -- some for fun reasons, like his creation of the idea of the modern closer with his usage of Dennis Eckersley, and some for other things involving usage that fans get uncomfortable talking about. Mark McGwire, a star under La Russa with two different teams, is blasted for his use of PEDs (real or imagined), while the manager who was there for it all -- there for the start of an era that the game wishes didn't exist -- gains entry. Here's the thing, though: La Russa is an imposing figure in the game whether you agree with him or not, and whether you agree with his legacies (real or imagined) or not. Cooperstown isn't getting it wrong by ignoring his controversy while simultaneously shunning McGwire and his ilk for their own. They're doing things right when it comes to the whispers of steroids for the first time.
McGwire doesn't deserve his fate, while La Russa absolutely deserves his. He'll be enshrined in Cooperstown, made a part of baseball's history and immortalized within its halls, as should happen for all of the giants of the game -- whether how they got to be who they are is in question or not. After all, Cooperstown is a museum, and museums should tell the story of history. La Russa is a major figure in the history of the game both for his success -- of which he had plenty, with three World Series championships, over 5,000 games managed, and his creation of a bullpen role that still exists today -- as well as his connection to the so-called steroids era of the late-80s and 90s, which changed the landscape of the game in ways we're still seeing as fans and media alike react to players like Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and more.
Don't take this as placing all the blame for everything that occurred post-Canseco on La Russa, because that's not what's happening here. There have been whispers -- some loud, some not as loud -- but they're just that. There's no incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing by La Russa, and the Expansion Era Committee voted with that in mind; with no hard evidence suggesting this shouldn't be the case, La Russa was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame. It mostly makes you wish that the players who helped him get there would receive the same treatment from their own voters, but maybe La Russa's induction is what's needed to get that conversation going. It's odd for the Expansion Era committee -- a replacement for the much-beleaguered Veteran's Committee that had difficulty getting anything right in its decades of existence - to be the voice of reason in anything, but they picked a wonderful starting point.
All three of these men are responsible for much of the last 25 years or so of baseball history. Picking the best and most important is nigh impossible, as there is no one way to evaluate a manager, but you don't have to pick one. The Hall of Fame didn't, choosing to put all three in at the same time, and we should now sit back and appreciate that we got to enjoy all of their work for as long as we did. Cooperstown is a better place when you remember that it's about celebrating and understanding history, and these three are major pieces in the history of the game that merit that celebration.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.