And then they buttoned their spanking new shirts with "Hall of Fame" scripted across the front and it was a glorious celebration for baseball. Together, they own 7,558 wins, eight World Series championships, and almost a century -- actually 91 years -- of living the uncertain life of a Major League manager.
When this legendary troika was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame in December 2013 it signaled the end of an era.
They were the faces of their teams -- each just as much a celebrity as the players who controlled their destiny. They had rockstar status.
Consider this: During 1996, Torre's first year, the Yankees finished seventh among the 14 American League teams in attendance at 2.2 million. By 2007, they were first, drawing 4.2 million, and he was a huge reason why.
Only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) won more games than La Russa (2,728), Cox (2,504), and Torre (2,326), and that comes from a list of the 680 who've managed in the 137 years Major League Baseball has been around.
Only 23 managers have been invited to join this special Hall of Fame fraternity. I predict getting there in the future will be much more difficult.
Oh, the door isn't being slammed shut; it's just that baseball managing is dramatically changing. Producing the credentials Cox, Torre, and La Russa possessed will be almost impossible even for the brightest young skippers.
In years to come Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Bruce Bochy, and Davey Johnson could find their way to Cooperstown. No question, they're deserving, but their splendid careers fall a few steps behind the newest Hall of Famers.
It's more than a changing of the guard. None of the above reached the magical 2,000-win plateau.
Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, and Dick Williams were a generation behind Cox, Torre, and La Russa. They were from the same mold.
These all were managers who defined the role we've come to know.
Today, it's a different game. The job has changed. It's unlikely any of the new breed will be able to sustain the types of careers their predecessors have built.
Most managers today are an extension of their general manager, the executive wing. They're tied to computer-generated analytical studies of players and teams. They alone seldom make all the on-field decisions.
Seat-of-the-pants managing is now as outdated as complete-game pitchers.
When La Russa was earning his stripes with Oakland in the mid-1980s, I often identified him as a "state-of-the-art" manager. He was a fierce competitor, but more innovative than anyone in the business. He had tremendous impact on the game.
He pioneered the use of the specialized bullpen and the one-inning closer. He tried using a left-handed third baseman with the White Sox in 1983 and 1984. He and his pitching guru, Dave Duncan, experimented with a three-man rotation.
I was sitting with Tony one night in Spring Training and he kept looking off into space. "I'm thinking about tomorrow's [exhibition] game," he finally told me. "I have some things I want to try."
And yet when his election to the Hall of Fame was announced, he shrugged off his innovations.
"I've never invented anything, but always somebody taught me something," he said.
In this new era, I compare Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon to La Russa, although it's doubtful Tony subscribes to the new genre.
Joe is my modern-day state-of-the-art manager. With a ridiculously low payroll, he's guided the Rays to the postseasons four of the last six years. They've won 90 or more games the last four years.
He agrees the election of Cox, Torre, and La Russa is the end of an era for managers.
"I think Jimmy Leyland should go, but the omnipotent manager is no longer going to exist," he said. "In the past, organizations rotated around managers. In the next several years teams are going to revolve around managers and general managers, and front offices.
"There's got to be more of a marriage between both to co-exist in today's world. We do it that way in Tampa Bay. I think that's the right way to do it.
"The way the game has evolved, looking for edges, and really trying to make better decisions based on high finance, you don't want to rely on the older techniques.
"Moving forward, the young manager who's willing to work with the front office and create this marriage with that section or sector, that's the group that will be maintained for a long while.
"Furthermore, when the manager gets fired there's not going to be the upheaval in the organization that occurs now."
Maddon added now when the manager is let go it becomes an entirely different organization with gloom on the other side of it.
"When the philosophy I'm talking about is embedded in the organization you're not going to bring someone in and operate in an entirely different manner. The new manager is going to have to fit into the structure."
John Hart, longtime general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers, now an analyst for the MLB Network, isn't certain the era we're accustomed to is truly passing us by.
"Could be, but I'm not sure," he said. "I like some of the new guys who're managing.
"The Mike Mathenys and John Farrells, the guys obviously who were in the 2013 World Series. They've been impressive."
Hart agrees, though, they both worked closely with their general managers throughout the season.
"The real question is can they do it for a long length of time?" he asked.
Even operating in what might have been the old-fashioned way, Cox, La Russa, and Torre might not have had the types of relationships with the front office Maddon describes, but they obviously worked well with their bosses.
Each was fired at least once, but became more successful the second or third -- or in Torre's case, the fourth time around.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle was at the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in December 2013 when the election of La Russa, Torre, and Cox was announced.
"I was standing in the rear of the room and when I saw them go up on the stage and sit down I felt like a six-year-old kid," he said. "The game was impacted by these men, lives have been impacted by them in such a positive way. How great is our game to have the opportunity to put all three in the Hall of Fame at the same time, to share the honor together-to honor one another?"
Is it the end of an era?
"Time will tell. It very well could be," Hurdle said. "All I know is seeing those men reminded me back when I was a young manager and I'd warn my players, 'I'll guarantee you one thing. You're going to have to play very good tonight because I'm going to get out-managed by that guy over there,' whether it was Lasorda, Torre, Cox, or La Russa.
"The one thing each one will tell you is that they got opportunities. It wasn't one opportunity. They used their eyes and ears. They had a passion for the game. And all were proactive in different areas…"
…Again, it seems extremely unlikely any future Hall of Fame manager will come close to equaling the achievements of La Russa, Cox, and Torre.
All three managed in both leagues, even though Cox spent 25 of his 29 years with the Braves and at one time won a world-record 14 consecutive division championships. He won just one World Series, a six-game conquest of Cleveland. It was the Braves' first championship since 1957, giving the franchise three titles in three different cities -- Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Tom Glavine, World Series MVP, won two of the four games.
La Russa split his 33 seasons-17 in the American League with the Chicago White Sox and Oakland, and the last 16 with the Cardinals.
For Torre, his fourth stop, with the Yankees, changed his life and punched his ticket to Cooperstown. He had managed 14 years in the NL with the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals…
…So, we're standing back, watching this magnificent era of managers pass by -- all 7,558 wins, the eight World Series titles, the century of work. I don't think any of them are geniuses. They didn't always outthink their opponents, but they always outworked them. Their strategy wasn't like a computer printout, but they seldom got out-maneuvered. Their determination to win was as relentless as it was fierce.
Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony La Russa defined the greatness of an era -- an era unlikely to be seen again.
Reprinted with permission of Triumph Books, www.triumphbooks.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.