What Larussa's Botched Bullpen Call Teaches About Trust

St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa changing course mid-stream (Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

During Monday night’s World Series game, Tony La Russa, the coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, failed to warm up the right-handed relief pitcher he desperately needed to face the Texas Rangers red-hot right-handed batter, Mike Napoli. Napoli, with the games announcers in complete disbelief at the oversight, took advantage of the mistake, drilling the pitch into right center field for a double. The Texas Rangers went up 4-2 and won the game.

Directly following the game, La Russa blamed the dugout phone, the bullpen coach (indirectly) and the noisy crowd for his failure to warm up the right guy. Within minutes, you could almost hear the simultaneous guffaw of the entire sports world, “It’s the phone’s fault?”. Our collective BS meters went off because in some way, we sensed he was covering something up.

Suddenly, a coach with a glorious 30 year coaching reputation, a man known for his intricate patchwork of relief pitching to pry out of tough situations, had lessened his credibility. What actually happened to cause the mistake is immaterial; how La Russa addressed the blunder is what matters — his credibility was eroded more by his response and less by his mistake.

Look at the foundation of La Russa’s reputation:

  • He’s earned the trust of his players and the respect of fans, opposing coaches and the media over 33 years of successful coaching
  • He ranks 3rd on the all-time winningest coaches list and is the 2nd winningest playoff coach ever
  • Baseball professionals commonly refer to him as one of the smartest, most capable coaches in the game
  • He’s proven time and again that he knows how to maximize his pitching staff to its fullest potential (he just set the record for the most pitcher changes in a World Series)

In other words, his overall capability wasn’t really in question. But when he made the mistake, he tried to cover it with an excuse so as not to look incapable. Capability is commonly mistaken as the primary measure of our professional success. But even the most capable professionals make mistakes and we all know this. On top of that, we are very forgiving beings when people own up to their failures (Bill Clinton’s approval ratings have never been higher).

By covering the pitching snafu with excuses, La Russa damaged our perception of his integrity, which is just as important as capability to reputation and trustworthiness, but harder to quantify and more difficult to regain. Even if the call was someone else’s fault, La Russa is in charge and it happened on his watch. Something stank about his explanation and we could all smell it through the cable wires. What if, instead of blaming the phone or the bullpen coach or the noise of the crowd right out of the gate, he had said this:

“In a coaching career as long as mine, you’re gonna make some mistakes. Some are bigger than others. This one was BIG and I’m going to do everything in my power to make good on it. My bad. Please forgive me.”

Eventually he said something like that, but by then, the talking heads had begun their wording frenzy. Reputation that grows out of capability takes years to destroy (think Brett Favre), but the same reputation can be destroyed in a single act that lacks integrity.

Have you ever forgotten to go to the bullpen when you should have and then made excuses? I sure have. The more quickly we admit our errors, express our regrets and work to overcome the deficit, the less damage we do to our character. In fact, strategic admission of failure can actually increase credibility, because it lets others know that you are both human and honest. While this lesson seems to be lost on politicians and the occasional celebrity, it needn’t be on the rest of us.

There is a highly powerful lesson in his example, especially for leaders:

Own your failures, use them to fuel positive change and allow them to improve your future decisions. You will gain trust, respect and credibility.

John Sileo speaks and writes on building trust and defending against dishonesty. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer, FDIC, Homeland Security, Experian UK and Blue Cross, as well as individual leaders committed to building power and influence from a foundation of trustworthiness. Learn more about his keynote speeches or contact him directly for Trust Coaching on 800.258.8076.