Casey Stengel was once asked if he would manage his team again the next year.
His reported reply: “People my age are dead next year and you can look it up.”
There are many variations to the quote, but whenever the Old Perfessor uttered whatever it was he uttered, he was definitely younger than Tony LaRussa is now, and quite possibly younger than Dusty Baker today. Health problems forced Stengel out of the dugout at age 74; LaRussa is 77, Baker 72.
Managing is emphatically not a gerontocracy. Almost all managers find the most success in their first year or two on the job, after which, as Bill James wrote years ago, they start to make themselves obsolete.
The needs of the team change, and a skipper brought in to fix a specific problem may be less able to solve the next problem. New managers bend the game in their direction; old managers often have trouble adjusting to the changes.
That is why most managers have short career spans. That is what makes the sight of LaRussa and Baker — briefly teammates on the Atlanta Braves a half-century ago, bitter rivals as National League managers in the 1990s and 2000s — still perched in October dugouts so remarkable. Each has bent the game; each has bent with the game.
To be sure, these two old faces are relatively new to their current posts. Baker inherited the Astros job last year; this is his first full season in Houston. LaRussa came out of 10 years of an uncomfortable retirement with the White Sox this year.
It’s not difficult to identify what the organizations were looking for with these hires.
The Astros tapped Baker to replace A.J. Hinch in the wake of the sign stealing scandal; Baker’s assignment was to bring stability to a veteran, star-laden squad in a time of turmolt and rancor.
In the long history of the game, there may have been no manager better suited to the task. Keeping controversial stars focused is Baker’s wheelhouse. Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in San Francisco. Sammy Sosa in Chicago. Bryce Harper in Washington.
LaRussa got the White Sox job because ... well, because owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is even older than LaRussa, had a sentimental fit and insisted on bringing him back to the first big league team he managed.
Ostensibly the rationale was that the Hall of Fame skipper was better equipped than predecessor Rick Renteria to push the White Sox over the hump to the World Series. The Chicago executives below Reinsdorf were reportedly doubtful about bringing LaRussa back, but the owner got what he wanted.
No manager in his seventies can be seen as a long-term fit for the job, but few managers of any age are long-term propositions. For all their successes, both LaRussa and Baker have bounced around; this is, viewed realistically, the fourth job for each.
There is no arguing with LaRussa’s record. His teams win. He took the Sox to a division title in 1982; 39 years later, he won another on the South Side, with World Series wins in Oakland and St. Louis in between.
Still, I am not a fan. I see LaRussa as a self-righteous bully, a defender and enabler of his players’ transgressions (from steroids to drunk driving) while rapidly offended by the transgressions of others. And while he has been the most influential manager of the past 30 years, I believe his tactical trademarks — he was the skipper who started the bloating of pitching staffs — have damaged baseball as a sport.
It’s a lot easier to root for Baker, who probably needs a World Series title to get the Cooperstown plaque LaRussa already has. The problem right now is that rooting for Baker means rooting for the “cheaters.”
Edward Thoma is at email@example.com. Twitter: @bboutsider.