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Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011

He Lives to Make Us See Red

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Now we're really getting somewhere with this baseball season! And not just first place, where the Brewers may have settled in for good. That's nice, but Milwaukee also has gained something every fan base loves: a top-shelf villain to root against. It's someone who must relish the role, because he claims it so often.

Yes, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa stepped up big-time last week by accusing the Brewers of cheating through technology, then going to his time-honored practice of trying to start a beanball feud. For good measure, he got huffy when Brewers broadcaster Bill Schroeder called the latter tactic "bush league." La Russa may not have helped his team, but he guaranteed himself an energetic greeting when the Cardinals hit Miller Park again on Aug. 30.


Artie:
Heading into the Brewers' series in St. Louis this week, I'm going on record as saying that La Russa and the Cardinals are the biggest bunch of arrogant, bush-league jerks I can think of.

Frank:
Readers, some of the preceding words have been edited for, um, good taste.

Artie:
It's not just the whining about that strip of lights...

Frank:
The LED panel above the loge section that mostly shows multiple versions of advertising. La Russa claimed the strip is brighter when the Brewers bat, which might make opposing fielders lose a ball in that background.

Artie:
He filed a complaint with the umpires, who said they saw no evidence—zilch.

Frank:
It's true, I guess, that a ball hit ju-u-ust so could disappear into a bright background. But there's no indication of a method with the colors. Often they change during an inning, no matter who's up.

Artie:
Of course who would complain but the guy who considers himself the supreme arbiter of all things baseball—what's right and proper, and when, and how it's to be done. He should wear a robe and wig like Sammy Davis Jr. used to on "Laugh-In" and have himself announced with, "Here Come Da Judge!"

Frank:
I've never seen one of his games in St. Louis; maybe they do that. More seriously, there was the hit-by-pitch brouhaha in the Tuesday night game. Albert Pujols got drilled on his left hand by Takashi Saito...

Artie:
Who couldn't have been trying to do it with two on and no outs in a one-run game.

Frank:
La Russa even said as much. But I guess with him, intentions don't matter. You hit his guy, you're gonna pay.

Artie:
He's been doing it for decades. All part of his creepy little efforts to mess with opponents' heads.

Frank:
Which can work. Four years ago La Russa got Ned Yost into a retaliating frame of mind and it helped cost the Brewers a game when they still had a shot in the division.

Artie:
This time, La Russa had Jason Motte throw at Ryan Braun, "just to send a message." Once wasn't enough, because Motte didn't quite plunk him the first time. Then he made sure, nailing Braun in the back—and pretty high.

Frank:
Braun was leading off the seventh in what had become a tie game, with Prince Fielder up next. I guess payback is so important that La Russa's willing to lose a game for it. He brought in a lefty to pitch to Prince, but possibly because the umpires had warned both sides, he threw four straight balls. The Brewers wound up not scoring, but not for lack of effort by Tony.

Artie:
Old-school, pitch-'em-inside baseball is one thing. But La Russa pulls this crap all the time. Last year the Cardinals got into it with the Reds.

Frank:
Then after Fielder walked, there was a La Russa display that qualifies as just being an itch. Everyone knew the lefty was finished, but La Russa didn't pull him right away. Instead he had his catcher, Yadier Molina...

Artie:
Who really helped his team later by going ballistic over a strikeout, earning a five-game suspension...

Frank:
Molina trudged to the mound, stood for a while, turned to walk back... and then La Russa came out to call in a righty.

Artie:
Obviously giving the guy more time to warm up.

Frank:
True, but La Russa just made the stall so obvious. Just another way to irk the Brewers and their fans.

Artie:
And add unnecessary minutes to an already long game on a steamy night. But all righteous under the Law of Tony.

Frank:
Of course La Russa has had success over three decades with the White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis. He and Connie Mack are the only guys to manage at least 5,000 Major League games.

Artie:
A milestone he reached this year—and right here, ain'a?

Frank:
Yup, and he got a friendly ovation that June night—before his club got smoked 8-0.

Artie:
The fans were less reverent last week. And just wait 'til the end of this month!

Frank:
To be fair, La Russa was right in saying that beered-up commentary about his family and his recent case of shingles was off-base. He won't have to worry about that in his home park.

Artie:
With a three-game lead after another trampling of Houston, if the Brew Crew wins just one of three they'll leave with a two-game cushion. But how sweet it would be to take the series! And Molina will still be suspended for the opener.

Frank:
This weekend it's back home against the Pirates, who've played themselves out of the race but could be dangerous. They've got to win again sometime, and they're more than due to win at Miller Park.

Artie:
First things first; time to pluck the Redbirds! But who knows what Tony will pull with his own fans to back him up?

Recommended Reading

Frank: I'd like to break some new ground for this page by touting two sports books our readers might enjoy.

Artie:
Wow, who knew we could be literary authorities?

Frank:
The first is Scorecasting, by Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago.

Artie:
Those last few words sound a little heavy.

Frank:
But the book is a really fun read. The subtitle is "The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won," and the book shows how human nature affects strategy and results.

Artie:
For instance?

Frank:
One thing they examine is "loss aversion"—a tendency that appears in studies of things like financial investments. Essentially, the idea is that the pain of losing something we think we've attained outweighs the pleasure of gaining something we're not expecting.

Artie:
The agony of defeat is worse than the thrill of victory?

Frank:
In a way. And that can lead coaches and managers to make moves that avoid risk.

Artie:
So "playing not to lose" is a real thing.

Frank:
So the authors say. They've compiled a ton of data, and one thing they contend is that football coaches should go for it on fourth down far more often than they do.

Artie:
What? And get second-guessed if it fails?

Frank:
Which is part of loss aversion, too. The authors also analyze influences on officiating, home-field advantage and whether there really is such a thing as "getting hot."

Artie:
If there isn't, don't tell the Brewers!

Frank:
The second book I'm plugging is Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball, by Larry Baldassaro, a retired professor of Italian at UW-Milwaukee and a personal friend. Everyone knows about Joe DiMaggio, but Larry has put together an amazingly detailed history of Italians' contributions to the game since the 19th century.

Artie:
Precious to anyone with Italian heritage, but an education for any baseball fan, I reckon.

Frank:
Absolutely. The book is filled with forgotten pioneers, impressive feats and delightful anecdotes—many of them from Larry's own interviews with old-timers and recent stars. And Larry does a great job of showing how baseball was one way Italian Americans overcame prejudice and wove themselves into the American fabric.

Artie:
So readers, as they say, you could look it up!

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