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Big League Stew

His way: Tony La Russa’s 10 best seasons as manager

Big League Stew

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In the wake of the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series for the 11th time in franchise history, manager Tony La Russa has decided to call it a career. Starting in 1979 with the Chicago White Sox, he managed for 33 years and 5,097 games (not including the playoffs), winning 2,728 games — along with six league pennants and three Series championships with the Oakland Athletics and Cardinals. Which were his best managing jobs?

1. 2011 Cardinals. They won 90 games during the regular season for a .556 winning percentage. That was only good for the 12th-best record in La Russa's career and second place in the NL Central. But it was good enough to sneak into the playoffs and win the World Series.

[Related: Tony La Russa's unexpected departure is a loss for baseball]

The challenges, of course, were many. The Cardinals started spring training with the loss of ace Adam Wainwright, were hit with myriad nagging injuries throughout the starting lineup, featured an unsettled bullpen at the start of the year and fought through a weird situation with Colby Rasmus and his dad. The Cardinals could have been an absolute disaster in other hands, but La Russa kept them on task and believing in themselves, even when they trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 25.  The agonizing pitching changes and funky lineups worked out, too, but they were secondary to La Russa's stewardship in the clubhouse.

2. 1989 Athletics. {YSP:MORE}

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La Russa's first World Series champion, no doubt aided by the return to Oakland of Rickey Henderson. Won 99 games and the AL West by seven games, even though Jose Canseco was limited to 258 plate appearances during the regular season. The World Series, which the A's won in a sweep, was interrupted by a major earthquake in San Francisco. No La Russa team came into a season with higher expectations, and it met all of them.

3. 2006 Cardinals. Seems like a wild-card team, but went 83-78 to win the NL Central. The Cardinals won 100 games the season before and 104 the season before that, but had nagging injuries up and down the lineup in '06. And these guys also had some of the worst starting pitching of any World Series winner ever —  only Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan sported ERAs under 5.06.

[Slideshow: Tony La Russa through the years in pictures]

4. 2002 Cardinals. Went 97-65 to win NL Central despite the death of starting pitcher Darryl Kile on June 22. Kyle was replaced with Chuck Finley, another good pitcher, but for La Russa and the players to stay professional after such a shocking and profound loss, it was impressive.

5. 1988 Athletics. La Russa's first World Series participant, as well as his  first truly great team, the A's won 104 games during the regular season to bring in the second great era in Oakland A's history. Might have won the World Series, too, if not for that meddling Kirk Gibson guy.

6. 2004 Cardinals. Won 105 games during the regular season (Pythagorean expectation: 100 wins) despite lineup being comprised of three great players — Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, plus 44 games of Larry Walker — and a whole lot of mediocre. Made it to the World Series, only to run into the buzz saw of destiny that was the Idiot Red Sox Nation.

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7. 1983 White Sox. They were 16-24 in June and La Russa reportedly was fighting for his job, but after a couple of adjustments, they won the old AL West by 20 games. The '83 Sox were a rousing success during the regular season by mixing two of Bill Veeck's favorite things — starting pitching and power. Ask La Russa in neutral territory which season of his career was the most fun (minus the playoffs) and he'll probably say '83.

8. 1992 Athletics. Maybe his biggest overachievers, the A's went 96-66 to finish with seven more wins than Pythagorean expectations. Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco missed plenty of games because of injuries, but La Russa did some magical things with bench guys like Lance Blankenship, Jerry Browne. The starting pitching was good, but not dominant as in earlier seasons. Oakland won only 84 games the season before and dropped 94 games in 1993, as the A's second golden era was ending.

9. 1981 White Sox (first half). The first time Chicago gave La Russa some decent players to work with — additions such as Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinski — and the Sox finished 31-22 before the players strike and after fielding some of the worst teams in club history in the late 1970s and 1980.

10. 2007 Cardinals. Went 78-84, which was seven games better than Pythagorean expectations despite a terrible offense and mostly poor starting pitching. La Russa closed ranks tightly — perhaps a little too tight — after pitcher Josh Hancock died in a drunken driving car wreck in late April. It couldn't have been easy to handle.

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