La Russa’s unexpected exit leaves Cardinal void
They don’t make managers like Tony La Russa anymore, not even close. He was, to the end, a domineering figure, the entire organization his dominion, a consolidator of power and purveyor of attitude, a paranoid, brilliant mastermind of his fiefdom. He put the manage in manager.
Now he is gone from the dugout, presumably for good, announcing his retirement Monday, three days after he led the St. Louis Cardinals to his magnus opus: a World Series championship with a team that, at varying points in the season, looked dead. Never, under La Russa’s stewardship, did the Cardinals quit. And that is his ultimate legacy after 33 years: not the 2,728 victories nor the three championship rings but how he achieved them – with a brute sense of single-mindedness, an unmatched ability to create something from nothing, and a style that redefined the modern game, much to his amusement and purists’ disgust.
The straw that was the Cardinals’ season in August ended up gold this week with the comeback of comebacks in the 11-inning Game 6 of the World Series and the Game 7 dominance. Even though La Russa spent much of the series stepping on himself with strategic maneuvers that backfired, his puppeteer act guided the Cardinals through a huge September and the postseason’s first two rounds. Whether it was a simple act of telling his team not to fold after his bungling Game 5 or the tightrope of keeping a team from folding when 10½ games back of the wild-card berth Aug. 25, La Russa’s full control of his clubhouse was as evident in his final year as it was in all the ones that preceded it.
“This just feels like it’s time to end it,” La Russa said Monday morning, “and I think it’s going to be great for the Cardinals to refresh what’s going on here.”
For the last 16 years, the Cardinals were molded to La Russa’s liking. Whether they go in house with longtime La Russa disciple Jose Oquendo or seek a qualified outside candidate – can you say Terry Francona? – the next Cardinals manager will replace one with an inimitable approach. La Russa was at his best when steeling his 25-man roster around an enemy. Sometimes it was real. Often it was not. La Russa’s manipulative chops were every bit as good as his strategic ones.
His my-way-or-highway tack made him enemies, too. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith went estranged from the Cardinals because of La Russa. Third baseman Scott Rolen(notes) exited amid deleterious circumstances. Center fielder Colby Rasmus(notes) chafed under La Russa and found himself shipped to Toronto three months ago because of it.
That trade, one for which general manager John Mozeliak took so much criticism, spurred La Russa to perhaps his finest hour as manager. With a deep bullpen and a thumping lineup, the Cardinals romped to their 11th championship and second under La Russa. That Mozeliak would give up Rasmus, a 25-year-old, cost-controlled, five-tool center fielder, spoke to the influence La Russa wielded and the respect he engendered. If you couldn’t play for Tony, you couldn’t play in St. Louis.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Tony La Russa leaves a big void]
Such an attitude made him simultaneously respected and reviled by his peers. One of the consequences of La Russa’s mind-warping was the Cardinals’ perpetual attitude, personified best by starter Chris Carpenter, who remade himself in the image of La Russa, and his pitching coach and consigliere, Dave Duncan. Cursing at hitters behind a stoic façade, Carpenter was the archetypal La Russa disciple: a nuclear bomb of attitude who, upon detonation, looks around and says “wasn’t me.”
La Russa was, in that fashion, beyond reproach. He would complain about strike zones and expect them to change. He would whine about other teams’ grievances and expect vengeance. He would reinvent the way relief pitchers are used and expect the world to follow. And it did. Because when Tony La Russa did something, almost all the time he did it right, and when something is done right in baseball it is prone to copy-catting.
[Slideshow: Tony La Russa through the years in pictures]
Nobody, of course, did it as well as La Russa. He retires as an oddity, someone who barely aged over more than three decades in a job that eats at a man’s soul. He had his troubles. The ugly DUI. The shingles that, for a few months this season, disfigured the right side of his face. Do something for as long as he did and there are bound to be trials and travails.
Thing is, this decision came as a surprise. La Russa stood 36 regular-season victories from passing John McGraw for second all-time, a remarkable accomplishment considering how fungible executives consider managers today. The closest thing to a La Russian manager is Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels, and he would be 73 years old before he manages as many seasons as La Russa, who leaves at 67.
The signs, La Russa said, “all just come together telling you your time is over.” And while just how over it is remains to be seen – La Russa could take an advisory role with the club of his choosing, maybe the Chicago White Sox, whose owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, remains a close friend – his time on the bench, diddling around with his matchups, looks to have ended.
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St. Louis will survive. La Russa’s exit does nothing to lessen the talent the Cardinals return, though it could have an effect on superstar free agent Albert Pujols’(notes) decision to return or sign elsewhere. While it was obvious La Russa would not last for the entirety of Pujols’ upcoming contract – which could range from seven to 10 years – the comfort of a La Russa-guided transition would edify Pujols. The two are professional father and son, each appreciative that the other is the best at what he does.
Or, in La Russa’s case, did. For all the excessive machinations, the idiosyncrasies and the arrogance, Tony La Russa will be missed by baseball. He was one of its defining personalities and its great winners, a testament to intelligence and knowledge in a game that hasn’t valued either nearly as much as it ought until recent decades. He did it his way, always, from start to finish.
No, they don’t make ‘em like Tony La Russa anymore. And that’s too bad.
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