Baseball fans have reason to celebrate today, as the Veterans Committee voted three legendary managers into the Hall of Fame. Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, three of the top-five winningest managers in Major League Baseball history, were each unanimously chosen for Cooperstown.
It's a fitting rebound for a Hall of Fame that saw no players elected last year because of voter activism against the Steroid Era by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. We now have the chance to celebrate the bright spots of that period. The revival of the New York Yankees' dynasty in the American League and the establishment of the Atlanta Braves' perennial control over the National League helped to revive interest in the sport after the players' strike in 1994. Torre remained steady in the Bronx Zoo, deftly handling big-name talent and endless scrutiny by both the New York news media and a somewhat toned-down George Steinbrenner, whom he appeased by winning four of five World Series rings from 1996 to 2000, cementing the Yankees as Team of the Decade. Cox took the Braves from worst to first in 1991, ushering in more than a decade of dominance as Atlanta won 14 consecutive division titles and appeared in five World Series in the 1990s, winning it all in 1995.
The manager who had the most significant impact on the game, however, is La Russa, whose innovation in the bullpen would ultimately help Torre, Cox and other managers along their paths to championship success. La Russa's managerial career began with the Chicago White Sox in 1979, but his biggest decision came at the helm of the Oakland A's in the late-1980s. It was there that he changed the nature of relief pitching, when he moved Dennis Eckersley from the starting rotation to the bullpen, against conventional baseball wisdom and the wishes of Eckersley himself. It paid off, rejuvenating Eckersley's career and cementing his Hall of Fame status, while paving the way for the closers of the future.
If you need proof of just how forward-thinking this move was, consider this offering by the Chicago Tribune's Jerome Holtzman, who, in 1996, chronicled La Russa's impact on Eckersley and baseball at large:
It was La Russa who virtually invented the ninth-inning pitcher; it enabled him to use Eckersley more often. Unlike many other managers, La Russa goes to his bullpen before the game is lost. He doesn't wait until the tying or winning run is in scoring position.
If that sounds familiar, it should: It's basically the entire blueprint for how managers can effectively use a closer, still in use today. Without Tony La Russa, we would never have had Mariano Rivera, Joe Torre would never have won four rings, and the entire climate of baseball would be completely unrecognizable.