Is the Cardinals’ Tony La Russa the best manager in baseball?


Is St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa the best manager in baseball these days? (Eric Gay/AP)
October 25, 2011

This week’s On Leadership roundtable examines America’s favorite pastime – baseball – and the best managers in the game today.

Baseball is a sport without coaches; instead, teams are led by managers, a term loaded with business-sector connotations. Though the GM is in charge of hiring and firing individual players, the manager is responsible for transforming those players into a team on the field. And while some managers get big-name players to bulk up a roster, most managers have to find a way to win without a full lineup of superstars. That is where real managerial leadership comes in, panelists agreed.

But each panelist had his or her own pick for the best MLB manager; only St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, whose team is currently in the 2011 MLB World Series, received a double vote from panelists. Below are highlighted excerpts from the seven roundtable pieces.

Who do you think is the best manager in baseball? Tell us in the comments.

James Quigley, former CEO of Deloitte, attributed La Russa’s success to his leadership ability to interpret the competition’s actions and coordinate the Cardinals’ responses:

[La Russa] is essentially a member of the team, very closely connected to what’s happening on the field. He is there with the team during the game, in the clubhouse and at practice. And he is an ever-present, real-time communicator with the players, but not overwhelming in the “command-and-control” sense that we see in other forms of leadership. (Read the full piece: “How to Lead Like La Russa” )

Henry Olsen, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, selected La Russa as baseball’s best manager because he continues to “re-write the book” on in-game leadership:

La Russa might have just rewritten the book again with his managerial performance in last week’s playoffs. His Cardinals won in six games despite not having a single starter throw at least six innings. … La Russa judged his combination of relievers was more potent than any single starter, and he had enough of them that he didn’t have to worry about exhaustion or overuse. …No other manager alive would have flown so consistently in the face of convention. But that’s what leaders do, in baseball as well as politics. They size up situations and people, are flexible about the means and unyielding on the ends, develop others to step up, and are ruthless about replacing them if they don’t. (Read the full piece: “ How Cardinals manager Tony La Russa rewrote the book)

But winning a trip to World Series isn’t everything. Michael Haupert, professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, wrote that baseball statistics can hardly determine baseball’s best manager. Instead, his pick for the best manager in MLB, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ron Roenicke, is characterized by his efficiency:

The best manager is the one who produces the most with the talent he is given. … If efficiency—getting the best output from your available inputs—matters, which it should, then Ron Roenicke is your man. He was the best manager in baseball in 2011 because he was the most efficient. The manager can only work with the players he is provided, but it is his job to make the most of the situation. (Read the full piece: “Why the Milwaukee Brewers have the best manager in baseball” )

Similarly, Justine Siegal, founder and executive director of Baseball for All and the director of sports partnerships for Sport in Society, wrote about another manager, Tampa Bay Rays’ Joe Maddon, who led his team to the 2011 playoffs without a superstar roster:

As the manager of the Rays, Joe has built a community. There is a sense of togetherness in the clubhouse, which makes for a unified team that can play well through both the highs and lows of a marathon-like season. To create a culture of fun, he surprises his players with different experiences: homemade hoagies, team letterman sweaters, wearing a Bucs helmet to a postgame press conference. Beyond the fun, Joe Maddon also wins games. Many thought the Rays would be rebuilding during the 2011 season, but instead they made the playoffs – the third time in four years. (Read the full piece: “Joining the cult of Tampa Bay Rays’ Joe Maddon” )

Leadership author John Baldoni suggested Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whose skills as a “people person” and own unfulfilled major league career make him a manager who understands his players better than others:

Strategically and tactically Jim’s a whiz, but that’s not his true gift. His forte is what he gets out of his players. According to a recent poll of major league players, Jim was voted among the managers players most want to play for. ... The reason may be that Jim appreciates their talents. Having been a minor league player, he knows what it's like to play the game but also respects what it takes to play the game at the highest level possible. That’s something he was never able to do; his playing career stopped at Single A. (Read the full piece: “How Jim Leyland came to manage the Detroit Tigers — and how he’s done it so well” )

Even Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson made it into the lineup, courtesy of Mark Tuohey, who served as chair of the District of Columbia Sports and Entertainment Commission from 2004 to 2007 and oversaw the return of MLB to D.C.:

Davey Johnson’s determination to know and understand his Nats players, and his willingness to have open communication on an individual and team basis, similarly played a strong role in leading the team to a third place finish in the National League East. The players publicly complimented Johnson for his leadership in making the clubhouse a hospitable place where discussion was valued. Moreover, Johnson’s ability to work effectively with General Manager Mike Rizzo on strategic personnel issues reflects credit on both the front office and the clubhouse leaders—and the results showed on the field. (Read the full piece: “Washington Nationals step it up in the leadership department” )

Finally, according to Tom Peters, a management expert, co-author of In Search of Excellence and author of The Little BIG Things, there is no such thing as the “best” manager in baseball:

To be sure, in a given season a manager might, like a player (or a big-bank CEO), have a hot year. But over the long haul, a contribution worthy of labeling “stellar” is questionable. Frankly, I don’t know how any of the modern-day major league managers and coaches—in any sport—ever do keep even a semblance of “control” of their clubhouses. They’re chock-a-block with kids just out of their teens with stratospheric salaries often tied to rock-hard, long-term contracts. Even a passel of saints might well turn into a cauldron of prima donnas. (Read the full piece: There’s no such thing as the best manager in baseball)

Read all seven roundtable pieces:

Tom Peters: There’s no such thing as the best manager in baseball

John Baldoni: How Jim Leyland came to manage the Detroit Tigers

Michael Haupert: Why the Brewers have the best manager in the game

Henry Olsen: How Tony La Russa rewrote the book

Mark Tuohey: The Nats’ step it up in the leadership department

Justine Siegal: Joining the cult of Tampa Bay Rays’ Joe Maddon

James Quigley: How to Lead Like La Russa

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