By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
October 27, 2006
ST. LOUIS – The World Series trophy was sitting on his desk and a drop of champagne was sliding down his cheek and here was Tony La Russa saying what he is always saying.
The guy who never wavers and never bends was trying to explain how he had nothing to do with confetti falling and hearts climbing around town, with making an 83-win team believe this was possible and with a 10th World Series title for this proud St. Louis Cardinals franchise.
And he certainly wasn't saying that this championship, 17 years after his last, was going to do anything to erase the memories of past failures or do anything for him at all. It is a players' game, La Russa is always saying, even though his team kept saying that it was the old manager who never let them fall no matter the losing streak, the slump, the injuries.
"I refuse to look at it that way," La Russa said. "It's a players' game. It's personal because I'm enjoying it personally, but the accomplishment is not personal. Are you going to tell me that there is anything (the Cardinals coaches and managers) did better than they did? I guarantee you, absolutely not. But our players executed the game better than their players, so we won."
Three times St. Louis lost seven or more games. Injuries ruined consistency, depth and talent. Rookies had to step up, starting pitchers had to be acquired and a near-historic late season collapse had to be averted.
And yet La Russa, unwilling to change course and unable to stop believing, came to the park the same way everyday. He was the one predictable thing in a season full of unpredictability.
La Russa is nothing if not stubborn. He doesn't shake. It can be perceived by some as arrogance or foolishness, but he doesn't care. There is a way to play baseball, his way, the right way, and as long as his team continues to do that, he is fine with everything. As long as that is possible, then so is this.
"He really stays consistent with his approach to the game," said Jim Edmonds, who has played seven seasons under La Russa. "You guys say it's intensity, but I think it's consistency. What you see is basically what you get. He doesn't like all the hoopla. He just wants to concentrate on his job so the rest of us can be free to do what we do best."
"I don't think there's been a year where I said, 'Wow, Tony did a great job this year' or 'He didn't do a great job this year,' " Edmonds continued. "I think he does the same thing every year."
And so nothing seemed to faze La Russa. He would come to the park with the same air of confidence regardless of the situation. At least externally. Inside, he too doubted – "How about daily?" – but he got the team to respond anyway. No setback was too great. No losing spell was too damaging. Entering the playoffs as an 83-win national joke didn't matter. Neither did the predictions for this series.
"There was something written that we were going to get swept in three games," St. Louis outfielder Preston Wilson said. "And it would only be four if they could stop laughing hard enough. I was just like, 'Whatever.'
"But (La Russa) never changed. He managed in the playoffs like he does in the season."
La Russa was aware of all of that stuff, too, but he wouldn't let anyone crack. The players may make the plays, but in this case a guy who had a reputation for playoff setbacks proved to be just the shot of gumption they needed.
"Our club was very strong between the ears," La Russa said. "We knew 83 wins coming in; we know that is a terrible record and we just refused to get a complex about it."
Most people thought the Cardinals would lose to San Diego early, then to the New York Mets and, of course, to Detroit from the supposedly superior American League. La Russa didn't believe that once. When, in Game 2 of the World Series, he possibly could have had Tigers ace Kenny Rogers thrown out of the game for having pine tar on his hand, essentially sending Detroit into a tailspin, he never thought to do it.
First, it violated his code of baseball. He believed winning that way wouldn't be winning at all. ("It's not the way we want to win.") Second, he didn't think it mattered. He felt the Cardinals were good enough to win anyway.
"We can compete with anyone," La Russa said after the controversy.
His players heard that and took it to heart. They never lost again.
"Well, you know, sometimes karma has a way of straightening things out by itself," Wilson said. "(La Russa) believes in (us) and we feel that as players."
After he was proven right, La Russa explained his confidence was hardly an act.
"Look at the catcher," he said. "Look at the first baseman, look at the second baseman, look at the shortstop, look at the third baseman and look at the centerfielder. Now that is six prime-time players. And then you had all sorts of weapons in left and right.
"And then we thought we had a chance to pitch really well. And that was something a lot of people didn't see coming, but we did."
In La Russa's well-analyzed mind, this was entirely possible and extremely plausible. It was just about surviving the injuries and getting his full team on the field. It was just about making the pitching staff believe.
It was just about playing the game the right way, the La Russa way, the best way. Do that and the players are capable of delivering a title.
It's that simple. It's just about the players.
The old manager, he kept saying, didn't have much to do with it.
And for once, his team didn't believe him.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Saturday, Oct 28, 2006 6:10 am, EDT