Hall of Famer Tony La Russa Sees Parallels between Baseball and Racing

Honorary No. 22 Pit Crew Member – Tony LaRussa with driver Joey Logano at Phoenix International Raceway. Photo – Joey Logano Facebook page

There was a decided bounce in the step of 72-year-old Tony La Russa as he walked from the drivers’ meeting to the No. 22 Team Penske transporter parked in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage at Phoenix International Raceway.

The baseball Hall of Famer was in uniform, but not the sort of uniform you’d expect. On this Sunday, two weeks before opening day for Major League Baseball, the three-time World Series champion manager was decked out in the bright Shell/Pennzoil colors of Team Penske driver Joey Logano.

Despite an all-consuming baseball career that started in 1963 and carried him to 2,728 wins as a manger—third most in MLB history—La Russa is no stranger to racing, having attended events at both Daytona and Sonoma.

But this weekend was different. This weekend he was part of the No. 22 Ford crew, and he was loving it.

“This will be a brand new experience,” La Russa said before the race. “I’m really fired up. I just hope they don’t ask me to change tires.”

In fact, La Russa spent the afternoon atop Logano’s pit box, standing more than sitting, watching computer screens, observing and soaking up the atmosphere.

La Russa came to learn. He didn’t come to PIR to make an impassioned motivational speech to the No. 22 team.

“If I was asked to do that, I’d be disappointed,” La Russa said after the drivers’ meeting. “I’ll tell you why. They’re like minutes away from getting going. They don’t need some yahoo from another sport coming in.

“They’re motivated and very successful. Mr. Penske has allowed me to come in and talk about strategy with them—I’m just curious. They don’t need my motivation.”

Part of the learning process involved talking strategy with Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski. La Russa was struck by how relaxed the drivers and crew members seemed as race time was approaching.

“I just talked to Joey, and I was commenting, ‘These guys are loose before the race,’” La Russa said. “In baseball, we do it 162 times, but at about 30 to 45 minutes (before a game), all of a sudden you see guys (start to tighten up).

“I would think they (the race teams) would get more uptight early, but they were fine. Brad Keselowski came up—fascinating.”

Now working with the Arizona Diamondbacks in a consulting capacity, La Russa sees marked similarities between the sport he knows intimately and the one he was enjoying on a hot, sunny day at PIR.

“I think it’s all the same,” he said. “The more you learn about the owner connection, the different parts of the team, the teamwork that’s involved, innovation—you have things that are critical to any sport … attention to detail. One little thing slips, and it costs you the race, costs you the win, costs you enough wins…

“I think there are analogies and similarities all over the place. That’s why I got a kick out of sitting with the two drivers, talking about their preparation, the strategy. I’ve already learned a bunch of stuff here—I may come out of retirement.”

La Russa also recognizes that all sports are reacting to the changing landscape of consumption and viewership. Where NASCAR introduced stage race across its top three national series this season, Major League Baseball, for example, has eliminated the obligatory four pitches that constitute an intentional walk in order to move the game along.

That change was in evidence on Sunday night, when catcher Yadier Molina trotted down to first base sans pitches in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 4-3 opening-day victory over the Chicago Cubs.

“When you go back as far as I go, there’s a traditional hundred-year history of doing things, but if you’re not innovating … you’ve got to make some changes and some adjustments,” La Russa said. “The stages—I think that’s fascinating for fans.

“In our sport, especially in the second half of the game, when the game slows up, and there’s dead time, fans are like, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ You want to see a pitch, hit, swing, out, run the bases. I know that’s where MLB is trying to focus without messing with the traditions. It’s a fine line, but it can be done.”