Wednesday, October 19, 2011

LaRussa vs. Washington: What Might Have Been

This World Series, pitting the St. Louis Cardinals versus the Texas Rangers, is a bitter pill for informed Oakland baseball fans.

It's hard to watch the teams' two skippers, Tony LaRussa and Ron Washington, without thinking, painfully, of what might have been had either man been allowed to stay with the A's organization, as they wanted to.

While this week's World Series is LaRussa vs. Washington, it also could be known as Steve Schott's incredible cheapness vs. Billy Beane's ego and arrogance.

See, LaRussa wanted to stay with the A's in Oakland after the 1995 season, even though the Haas family had sold the team to Schott and Ken Hofmann. But Schott didn't want to pay LaRussa's then-salary of $1.5 million. The Haas family actually offered to pay LaRussa's salary, out of pocket, in order to keep him in Oakland, and Schott, ever stingy, was more than willing to keep LaRussa on someone else's dime. But LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, seeing that Schott was ready for a roster fire sale, left for St. Louis.

But Schott wasn't done getting rid of fan favorites and future Hall-of-Famers. He fired announcer Lon Simmons because he didn't want to pay his salary. Simmons, who spent decades calling Giants games before he joined the A's, was re-hired by the Giants and eventually was given the Hall-of-Fame's Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. But Schott wasn't done hurting the franchise. Before the 1997 season – just a year after Schott had chased LaRussa away -- the A's traded Dennis Eckersley to St. Louis. Then the A's traded McGwire to St. Louis during a season in which the talent-free roster finished last in the AL West and lost 97 games. Then, amazingly, Schott and Hofmann sued Oakland and Alameda County for "hurting their attendance" by renovating the Coliseum for the Raiders. Logic would dictate that Schott's terrible public relations and fire sale of A's stars led to lower attendance. But Schott and Hofmann weren't "the buck stops with us" kind of guys. They blamed others for their mistakes and sought to take public tax money through a lawsuit to prove their debatable point. That was the late 1990s, and LaRussa, who still lives in the East Bay with his wife in the offseason, has been a Cardinal ever since. Sadly.

Fast forward to 2006, when manager Ken Macha took the A's to the ALCS, the farthest they'd been in the postseason since 1992. Strangely, Billy Beane rewarded Macha with a pink slip. With the A's manager's job now open, A's players, fans and the news media all clamored for Beane to hire Ron Washington. "Wash" had been the team's longtime third-base coach and was the fielding instructor whom Eric Chavez credited for turning him into a Gold Glove third baseman.

Everyone wanted Washington to be the A's new skipper. Everyone except Beane. For some reason, Beane interviewed Washington and then waited. And waited. And waited some more until Washington was hired by the Texas Rangers as their new manager. With Washington out of the way, Beane then hired Bob Geren and we all know how that went.

Now, five years after Beane made that huge mistake, Geren was fired after failing to earn a winning season and Washington is getting ready to manage his Texas squad to its second consecutive World Series appearance. Can a baseball general manager make such a glaring personnel error and still keep his job?

Beane keeps blaming the Coliseum and "the market" for his team's failures, but the reality is that both LaRussa and Washington -- 10 years apart -- wanted to stay with the A's in Oakland at the Coliseum.

Washington and LaRussa are getting ready to enjoy one of the highlights of their baseball careers and we in Oakland are left to wonder what might have been if it weren't for Schott's stingy, shortsighted ways and Beane's inability to see that he had great manager right in his own locker room.

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