Ron Washington vs. Tony La Russa: not the mismatch everyone’s making it out to be

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One thing that keeps popping up as I talk to fans and radio hosts and stuff this week is the notion that Tony La Russa gives the Cardinals an edge because he’s going to manage circles around Ron Washington.  I get why people say this, but I think it gets the story way wrong, and does a disservice to Washington.

At the outset, let me be clear: La Russa is an exceptional manager. Probably the best in the past 50 years and there’s an argument for going back further. I and others take swipes at him all of the time because we don’t much care for his style or demeanor, but you can’t argue with his greatness and success. It’s ridiculous that the Hall of Fame is going to make him wait until he retires to get his plaque.

2011 may go down as La Russa’s best year ever. He took a team that was out-of-synch for much of the season and made them hum just when they had to hum lest their season end.  He angered all the prospect fanboys in driving Colby Rasmus out of town, but that and its attendant moves ended up working, at least for now. He took what was an atrocious bullpen in the first half of the season and made all kinds of adjustments on the fly to where that weakness is now a clear strength. What’s more, he did it without Dave Duncan who was with his sick wife down the stretch. Oh, and he had that case of shingles or pink eye or whatever it was and fought through it too.  Just crazy-impressive by every measure.

But at the same time, as a lot of Cardinals fans will tell you, La Russa can over think things. Anyone who thinks deeply about things is prone to that, actually.  For all of the moves that work, he’s just as capable of making moves that don’t work, such as intentionally walking a guy when it makes little sense, going too crazy with pitching changes or double switches to gain a platoon advantage when the advantage is far outweighed by the loss of the players he has burned through or — as was the case in this random game in September — doing all of those things at once.

The point here is that, while La Russa is often called a genius, it’s more accurate, I think, to call him a gambler. A smart one who understands the game he plays very, very well, but a gambler all the same. And even the best gamblers lose sometimes. La Russa loses sometimes too, and when he does, it’s often a product of the same sort of decision making process that helps him win all of those other times.

Ron Washington is a totally different kettle of fish.  He’s not the tactical manager La Russa is — no one is — but he gets more criticism for the buttons he pushes or doesn’t push than he deserves.  This is mostly because most people’s exposure to Washington’s style came in last year’s World Series when, no, he didn’t deploy his bullpen in optimal fashion, finding himself unwilling to use relievers when the situation — as opposed to the inning — dictated.

source: Getty ImagesBut that has changed as his roster has changed. Last year his pen was relatively thin, with Neftali Feliz being the only true shutdown guy he had. This year Washington has an embarrassment of bullpen riches at his disposal, and the freedom that kind of talent has given him has loosened him up considerably.  Rarely has he made a misstep this postseason, and if he does so in the World Series it will be because he had to move Heaven and Earth to do it. Feliz, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando give a guy a hell of a lot of margin for error.

There have been managers who have achieved great success throughout history by laying the heck off and leaving the tactical games to others.  Washington is one of those guys.  He’s aggressive with base running, but it’s probably just because he has a lot of decent base runners who, when they steal, do so at a respectable success rate.  Otherwise: he more or less lets his men play.  He doesn’t walk guys or sacrifice to excess.  He’s willing to let some defense go — say, behind the plate — to make sure the best bats make it into the lineup.  Put simply: Washington doesn’t meddle that much. He lets his players play and he has a lot of good players.

If Washington and La Russa were given robot teams to manage, each with equal talent and outcomes that were predictable to a 99% degree of probability, sure, I’d take La Russa because then the tactics might make a difference. But we don’t have that here. Yes, La Russa may gain some advantages here or there with a genius move, but Washington knows when to get the hell out of the way, and that limits the downside of a tactical mistake. And, it seems, he has more of a margin for error to begin with because he has the slightly more-talented roster.

A managerial mismatch? No way. At least not one that will determine the course of this World Series.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.