Monday, June 13, 2022

Twilight of the Crusty Old Pain-In-The-Ass Baseball Manager

If you're going to do some disastrous, avant-garde baseball managing, it is probably best not to do it during a day game against one of the best teams in the league.  Not for Tony La Russa.  It's smack dab in the middle of the afternoon when La Russa decides to play the percentages and inexplicably issue an intentional walk to the Dodgers' Trea Turner in the middle of an at-bat with Turner facing a 1-2 count.  Sox announcer Jason Bennetti is baffled.  The Comiskey crowd roars with incredulity.  A man can be heard on the broadcast bellowing "THERE ARE TWO STRIKES, TONY."  The next batter, Max Muncy, blasts the pitch over the left field fence and, according to baseball's expert Profanity Mouth-Watchers, he yells "you fucking walk him with two strikes! Fuck you, bitch!" as he crosses the plate.  

The press conference, where he got short and angry with reporters asking him about the walk while defending it as a no-brainer baseball decision, was vintage La Russa.  La Russa is, historically, an all-time great manager.  He is, according to police body camera footage, a "Hall of Fame baseball person."  But the White Sox are not getting La Russa at the peak of his tedious powers.  They are getting a crusty septuagenarian who appears to be not quite unaware of the drastic ways that the strategy and tactics of baseball have evolved in the last decade as much as arrogantly dismissive of them.  Last year, he revealed that he had no idea what the admittedly convoluted rules for the extra inning "ghost runner" were while still holding fast to unwritten rules about home run celebrations so much that he defended an opponent throwing at one of his own players.  Since taking over the White Sox, he has as many DUI arrests as playoff wins.  He looks like a rotting bog log wearing transition lenses. 

Perhaps I am being unfair to Tony La Russa but in my defense I despise him.  He has been my least favorite person in baseball for decades.  This is admittedly largely because he successfully managed the vile St. Louis Cardinals, but even people who have not have watched their favorite team endlessly walked off by a heretofore unknown baseball entity with a name like Ronald "Tummy" VanManbanter who somehow just sort of manifests on the Cardinals from some far-flung minor-league affiliate and immediately hits .285/.356/.458 are sick of La Russa's shit.  La Russa comports himself as a Genius of Baseball Managing which on its face is one of the funniest things for a person to do because the concept of watching a bunch of tobacco juice oafs hitting balls with sticks and setting each other's feet on fire and getting injured by doing things like accidentally gluing themselves to a truck or by trying to clear out a nest of aggressive hornets using a bat with a nail sticking out of it and then swaggering around saying "I am the genius of this" is an insane thing to do, but La Russa definitely wanted people to think he was really smart so he did a lot of things like changing pitchers in a way that I can only describe as ostentatiously and painstakingly doing Handedness in his lineups and disdainfully scoffing at everyone who questions one of his bold decisions even if one of his most brilliant baseball innovations was pretending he had no idea his Oakland players were bathing in anabolic chemicals and swelling up into muscular blimp creatures that needed to be crane-lifted out of their tiny 1980s sports cars. On the other hand, I have read that he is very nice to animals.

Despite his gaffes and the increasingly frantic complaints from White Sox fans losing their minds that their championship-caliber team is in the hands of this doddering dill weed, La Russa seems in no danger of losing his job because of his close friendship with Jerry Reinsdorf.  That was not the case for another one of baseball's elderly personalities Joe Maddon, who was fired by the Angels in the midst of a twelve-game losing streak.*  Maddon, like La Russa, cultivated a quirky genius of baseball affect, but while La Russa comports himself like a dour prosecutor condescendingly explaining why his office is declining to charge a rogue detective unit that has gone on a spree of stealing blizzard machines from a local dairy queen and turning a police van into a mobile ice cream unit despite them being caught on twelve separate videos, Maddon comes across like a professor who boozes with his undergraduates.  Maddon loves to deploy unorthodox five-man infields, set up squeeze plays, and stash relief pitches in the outfield for tactical purposes.  This season, he issued an intentional walk with the bases loaded in a tied game (the Angels won); with the Cubs, he oversaw a nationally-televised game that involved relief pitcher Travis Wood making a tough catch in left field in the ivy and then ended on a walk-off Jon Lester pinch-hit bunt.  Maddon also brought zoo animals to spring training games, drove around in a van that he referred to as a "shaggin' wagon" and tried to break up a Cubs slump by hiring a magician to entertain the team with a variety of tricks.  It's a routine that was self-consciously quirky and goofy and obviously very annoying except that Maddon won a World Series for the Cubs, which I never thought I would see in my lifetime, so actually all of that was adorable even if the way he used his pitchers in Game 7 may have actually taken years off my life.

Maddon and La Russa represent an increasingly rare kind of baseball manager, the obstinate old guy who is determined to do things his way even if it is obviously self-defeating.  There are few bulbous, purple guys straining at the tensile limits of their baseball uniforms making baffling decisions and then kicking a hat in a way that it seems like it may make them immediately die around the game anymore.  Looking around baseball, most managers seem to be anonymous stubble guys in their 40s and 50s, and their jobs seem increasingly encroached upon by front offices as they oversee constantly shifting lineups and entire relief pitching staffs rotated in and out of the roster with a variety of minor league options and injury list shenanigans like they are hockey lines.  Managers seem mainly to be in charge of vibes, even as many of them appear to be bereft of personality.  Like many changes in baseball, it is obviously smarter and more effective to manage teams this way, but less entertaining than having an angry and possibly day-drunk old guy going with his gut and doing the dumbest thing possible and then yelling at reporters that they never played the game.  Here is a video of Earl Weaver arguing with an umpire and both of them have bizarre Old Man Voices that clearly don't exist anymore to the point that they seem dubbed in by improv comedians.

One disappointing change to baseball in 2022 is that umpires are now talking to us and have boring, normal Ref Voices whereas before the only time we ever heard an umpire speak is when they decided that instead of words they should be bellowing inexplicable throat noises like HRAAAAAAT and DEEEEEKE and we could imagine they all spoke exclusively in a mysterious, runic Ump Language 

I am not sure what the solution is for baseball's crisis in pain in the ass old guy managers.  The game certainly does not need any more Tonys La Russa.  Perhaps we can find a compromise and train the current crop of managers in the art of having truly embarassing on-field meltdowns and also have them smoke several packs a day of cigarettes or watch footage of Burgess Meredith so they know how to rasp weirdly when it is time for them to go nutso on an umpire.  Perhaps Major League Baseball may one day give us a different option in its evolution  between Boringly Optimized and Insanely Stupid.

*UPDATE I have just learned that Joe Maddon had just gotten a mohawk haircut in order to rally the troops but was fired before being able to show any of them, presumably leading to a despondent Maddon swilling wine and stewing in his rumpus room while wearing a ridiculous Rally Haircut, this is the most Joe Maddon way to get fired that I can possibly think of. Here is an Advanced AI Rendering:


"...The 'WWI origins' literature has assumed such vast dimensions that no single historian (not even a fantasy figure with an easy command of all the necessary languages) could hope to read it in one lifetime..." writes Christopher Clark in his 2013 WWI origins book The Sleepwalkers. And yet here is his tome, with Clark admitting that he has tossed his work onto the pile while also boldly declaring that he has something fresh to bring to the subject.  Like any historian entering into a crowded, well-trodden field, Clark seeks to refocus the debate-- his overarching argument is that Europe's chaotically unfocused governments combined with some bad contingent decisions allowed the continent to blunder into disaster-- but I think his goal also seems to be writing the definitive recent English-language account of the pre-war years for the twenty-first century that could stand alongside classics like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August.  I can't pretend I know enough about the enormous body of literature about the beginnings of the war to say where it stands, but I think that Clark does an admirable job guiding readers through the beguiling international and domestic situations unfolding all over Europe while also having a good eye for the baffling and absurd and often ludicrously-mustachioed personalities who blithely led their countries into an unfathomably horrible conflagration.

One of Clark's contentions is that Serbian politics have traditionally gotten short shrift in grand World War I histories, so he starts there.  He describes the Serbian state as one shaped by regicide and fueled by nationalism and irredentism.  The bloc in power during the 1914 July Crisis had been largely shaped by the party that had assassinated King Alexandar, a child who assumed the throne at the age of twelve after his father abdicated and then four years later performed what Clark describes as a soft coup prematurely putting himself in power in a move orchestrated by his father who then operated as the king all but in name while both father and son alienated Serbians with increasingly authoritarian crackdowns.  Alexandar attracted increased opprobrium when he chose to marry an older woman named Draga Mašin, whom Clark describes as being unpopular because, among other things, she was "well-known for her allegedly numerous sexual liaisons."  

During a heated meeting of the Crown Council, when ministers attempted in vain to dissuade the king from marrying Mašin, the interior minister Djordje Genčić came up with a powerful argument: "sire you cannot marry her. She has been everybody's mistress-- mine included." The minister's reward for his candour was a hard slap across the face-- Genčić would later join the ranks of the regicide conspiracy.

Clark suggests that the murder of Alexandar and Mašin in 1903 brought to power a Serbian government beholden to a radical element that had killed a king and also supported a network of secret organizations that would serve as an unwieldy but influential pressure group within Serbia.  This group would push for increasing Serbian demands on Balkan lands and for hostility against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One of Clark's main arguments is that European governments were too disorganized to maintain coherent foreign policies.  Responsibilities, he writes, floated between heads of government, foreign offices, and various ambassadors on the ground, each with their own priorities, connections, and competence.  The other monkey wrench was the presence of monarchs with varying amounts of actual power, effectiveness at wielding it, and ability to communicate to their ministers, the public, and their peer monarchs, many of whom happened to also be cousins with the unfathomably strange family dynamics that come from people who are expected to spend most of their time strutting around in weird military uniforms and bloviating.  These systems led to incoherent policies, communication breakdowns, and swift changes that all created a vortex of chaos swirling over the Continent as the tensions and stakes grew after the assassination of the Archduke.

It is no surprise that the most compelling personality Clark writes about is Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Clark is a historian of Prussia and his previous work includes a biography of Wilhelm, which I am curious to read because his portrayal of the German monarch is one of the nastiest and funniest I have seen in a book like this.  Clark describes Wilhelm as a blundering oaf, a belligerent hawk constantly calling for war only to panic and seek conciliation when it looks like he might actually provoke a real conflict, and as personally extremely annoying. 

"It is worth picturing this scene--" Clark writes about a meeting between the German and Russian governments in 1912, "the glare of the sunlight on the broken stone of the old fort, [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Kokovtsov sweltering in his jacket, the Kaiser red-faced, his moustaches trembling as he warmed to his theme, gesticulating, oblivious to the discomfort of his companions, and behind him the Tsar, trying desperately to end the ordeal and get the party out of the sun."  Earlier in this summit, Clark writes that Wilhelm harangued the Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov "for over an hour in detail about his relationship with his parents, who, he claimed, had never loved him."  

Even his mustache seems to be saying "enough with this guy"

This is the point of the review where a normal person would discuss how Clark sets up the interplay of increasingly dangerous European power dynamics that could explode into a widespread war (the Austrians, for example, had considered the possibility of what they called a "Balkan inception" long before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and even longer before the phrase could be used to describe an ill-considered bootleg DVD purchase) with bad and almost blasé decisions by European statesman.  But you are reading a book review on a blogspot post that is largely an angry jeremiad against Tony La Russa, so it's important to point out the quantity of World War I Guys who spring out of these pages as tossed off asides or in photos.  Clark casually mentions that the head of the British mission to the Ottoman Navy was a person with the arresting name Arthur Limpus.  Almost everyone pictured has alarming and terrifying facial hair that I can imagine the tension in the room not only from high-powered negotiations but also the ever-present danger of ministers or adjutants or other minor dignitaries somehow turning their faces in the exact dangerous angle that results in a tangle of dangling mustaches, whiskers, and styles that can only be described as side-beards as white-gloved waiters sprint for scissors and dashing junior military aids draw their sabers, much like how the alliance system led to powers like Britain, Russia, Germany, and sometimes Italy getting sucked into a dispute between Austria and Serbia. 

It is impossible to imagine Russian Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin making it through an entire day without getting his mustachios stuck in some sort of gears or dumbwaiter 

It has become fashionable for historians to relate their work to the present context instead of leaving it to succeeding historians to take a look at what was going on when the book was written and decide that their work on Ottoman tapestries is reflecting Contemporary Cold War Tensions or something.  In this case, Clark is concerned about the breakdown of the international order in Europe during the European sovereign debt crisis unfolding in the early 2010s as the book was coming together.  Reading this less than a decade later, this view seems quaint.  Unfortunately, I think readers in 2022 need little convincing about the fragility of peace in Europe, and while Clark, writing in 2013, claims that foreign relations are more streamlined and less convoluted than they were in 1914, I think he would agree that world leaders don't have the decency to parade around with elaborate and impossibly stupid mustaches anymore.  

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