Sunday was arguably the pinnacle of Tony La Russa’s fifty years in professional baseball – his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, some tried to mar the proceedings by questioning La Russa’s worthiness for Cooperstown due to his years managing the Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals during the heyday of steroids-fueled sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.
The criticism seemed ill-timed as this subject has been discussed and debated before – and it will continue to be long in the future. However, the Hall decision had already been made and would not be reversed no matter how much mud was thrown around.
Extreme behavior sometimes generates comparable action in response. Such was the case when at least one La Russa defender tried to draw the parallel of fellow inductee Joe Torre having managed Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez.
That line seems way off-base to me. While the three players were all connected with steroids, they did not establish the identity of Torre’s Yankees clubs as did the Bash Brothers for La Russa’s A’s. Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter were the face of those New York clubs – men whose reputations have been beyond reproach.
Clemens and A-Rod played the majority of their MLB years elsewhere and Pettitte’s one incident with steroids is akin to Rick Ankiel’s, in my opinion – a minor blip in an otherwise admirable career.
In my view, several of the personality traits that helped make La Russa so successful worked against him on the steroids issue. His unwavering loyalty to his players included defending McGwire, often angrily, against his accusers for several decades. Long past the point it seemed appropriate, the defense continued – even after Big Mac’s own brother confirmed the story and up until McGwire finally came clean.
The specifics surrounding McGwire seemed to paint La Russa as being in general denial about a widespread problem in baseball that seemed to become obvious to most everyone else long before.
I don’t recall the public posture taken by Torre, or Bobby Cox, for that matter, being comparable.
A far more interesting question, in my view, is if there should be greater consistency in Hall qualification for players versus managers active during that time. Philosophically, I suspect so, but as with most challenging issues, the devil would be in the details.
The steroids era will continue to be debated for years into the future as will the role of those involved, but it should have been set aside on La Russa’s big day.