It is a rare day when three of the greatest of all time, in anything, wind up sitting next to each other, smiling, laughing and crying. It happened in Orlando, Florida, on Dec. 9 as the Hall of Fame elected Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who are probably the three best living managers and three of perhaps the seven greatest managers in the history of baseball. And on Sunday in Cooperstown, New York, they will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame.
La Russa, Cox and Torre managed a combined 91 years, won 7,558 games, made 45 playoff appearances, won 17 pennants and won eight World Series. After Connie Mack and John McGraw, the winningest managers of all time are La Russa (2,728), Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326). That five, plus Joe McCarthy and Earl Weaver, might comprise the list of the best managers ever, and there on that Dec. 9 day sat three of them, the greatest managerial class in Hall history.
These three won for so long, they won with multiple strengths, with virtually no weaknesses, and each had the ability to adapt to today's player. La Russa's greatest asset was managing the game. Cox's was managing the players. Torre's was managing the owner.
"Tony never missed a thing. Never," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "At times in games, you found yourself managing against him. If you ever squeezed, and he didn't know it was coming, that's a pretty good feeling for a manager." It rarely happened. La Russa was so good with the strategy of the game, so secretive, that he was known to have his trainer, Barry Weinberg, not the third-base coach, give a sign because the opposing team wouldn't be watching the trainer. "If [Weinberg] pulls out his tongue depressor," Rich Donnelly, former coach for the Pirates and Marlins, said with a laugh, "it's a steal."
In the late '80s, La Russa essentially invented the way bullpens are used today, with setup men with defined roles, lefty specialists and closers who pitched only one inning. He'd occasionally hit his pitcher eighth, not ninth, in the batting order in hopes of having more men on base for the middle of his lineup. On an obvious bunt play, instead of having his first baseman charge toward the plate, he'd have his second baseman, who was a better athlete with better hands.
The game was such a competition for La Russa, and every game, no matter how small, mattered. Many years ago, before the third exhibition game of spring training, he called his Cardinals team together for the daily morning meeting and said, "We're 1-1. I'd rather not fall under .500." Any day, ask La Russa how he was doing, and he'd answer, "I'll tell you in about four hours." By then, he'd know whether his team had won or lost the game.
Cox loved, respected and protected his players like no other manager of his era, if not any era. "When you look up 'player's manager' in the dictionary, Bobby's smiling face would be right there," former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I've never heard any player say anything bad about him. He's the reason why players who leave here want to come back." Former Braves pitcher John Smoltz said, "We would do anything to win for him, almost to a fault. Bobby would look at me and say, 'Can you give me another inning?' and even though I knew I didn't have another inning in me, I would always go out there because I just couldn't let Bobby down. And everyone on our team felt that way."
Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone laughed when telling the story about a argument he and Cox had about the strategy decision involving former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. "Bobby said, 'Leo, I don't think that's going to work,' and we went back and forth," Mazzone said. "Finally, I said, 'Tommy thinks it's right.' And Bobby said, 'OK, then.'"
When Cox once benched his center fielder, Andruw Jones, for not hustling, Jones nearly cried.
"I felt like I'd been benched by my father," Jones said, "I didn't want to let either down."
Torre managed his owner, in this case, George Steinbrenner, better than any other manager in baseball history. Steinbrenner was so adamant about winning and so demanding of everyone, especially his manager and players, but Torre was the absolute master of deflecting any negative attention away from his players, allowing them to just play. His calm hand during controversy helped the Yankees to win four World Series titles in five seasons (1996, '98, '99, 2000). No one could talk to the bombastic Steinbrenner, and reason with him, like Torre.
"I trusted Joe," Steinbrenner once said. "I knew, like me, that he only cared about winning."
But, like Cox, he also really cared about his players.
"Joe called me in his office once," former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez said. "I was really struggling, and I thought he was going to yell at me. I thought he was going to bench me. Instead, he gave me a bottle of wine and the name of an Italian restaurant and said, 'I want you to go eat dinner at this place tonight. Stop worrying. Just enjoy yourself.' So I did. And the next day, I started hitting again. That was Joe. He never panicked."
Tony, Bobby and Joe. When it came to managers, you have to use only their first names. And now the three of them -- three of the best ever -- are going into the Hall of Fame together.