Another La Russa explanation leaves questions

Tim Brown

ST. LOUIS – If you have to know the truth, if it makes any difference to you now, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said yes, it was “embarrassing” when the eighth inning of Game 5 went all bat-stuff crazy on him.

“That’s not fun,” he said, “geez.”

La Russa would hate this, and so too will those who enjoy watching La Russa cannibalize his own smugness, but there was something sad in watching him Tuesday afternoon.

He looked to me like a man stepping gamely in front of a bullet. Hell, a hail of ‘em.

Thing is, what if he were covering for someone he adores? His best friend, Dave Duncan? What if the guy on the line from the dugout wasn’t La Russa, but, say, a loyal and enduring pitching coach? The guy whose wife is ill, whose season was creased by trips home to nurse her, whose head is in the game but also must be in a bedside chair, reading her to sleep?

I don’t know. Presumably, only a few do. And La Russa, half-a-day later, would only repeat, “I don’t throw family under the bus,” and then guess that, yes, he himself was probably the one on the telephone when his bullpen came apart, as did Game 5 of the World Series.

He looked to me like a man stuck between the truth and his duty. If that’s too grand, too naïve, so be it.

Maybe this has nothing to do with the best pitching coach in the business, a man as professional as they come, and a guy who’d certainly rather fight his own battle than have the manager defend him. Maybe I’m dead wrong about the whole thing. Frankly, I probably am. But, what if I’m not?

Does that change anything?

The day after Game 5, the day before Game 6, La Russa sat in Busch Stadium’s cellar before scores of reporters, all eager to reconstruct – and deconstruct – the 20 minutes of his most professional breakdown.

He wore a thick red hoodie, a crisp red cap and thin red lips. He painstakingly defended Albert Pujols’(notes) freedom to manage parts of the game from the batter’s box, and his own willingness to allow – even encourage – it.

In Game 5, all that freedom and encouragement probably cost the Cardinals a rally, and maybe that’s when La Russa should have foreseen it wasn’t going to be his night, or his ballclub’s.

An inning later, that wasn’t nearly the story anymore.

[Related: La Russa to blame for Cardinals' Game 5 loss]

Plenty will enjoy this, the great La Russa enduring one of the painfully humiliating moments in World Series history, standing on the mound in front of millions and playing “Marco Polo” with his bullpen.

La Russa clearly won’t. Not now, hours before an elimination game. Not ever, probably, given the stakes and the stage and all he demands of himself.

The Cardinals came apart in the most fundamental of ways, on his watch. The only way to put it back together is to win, twice. Otherwise, they’ll have cost themselves No. 11, and a contributing factor will have been the telephones at Rangers Ballpark, which is unfathomably preposterous.

La Russa on Tuesday afternoon fielded 28 questions. One was about Jaime Garcia’s(notes) Game 6 start. One was about possible rain during Game 6. One was about his Game 7 starter. One was about Chris Carpenter’s availability for Game 7. And one was about the possibility of Pujols playing his final game as a Cardinal.

The rest? The hit-and-run Pujols called from the batter’s box and, primarily, the conversations between the dugout and the bullpen.

And while the message hadn’t changed entirely, there were two interesting and subtle revisions from the night before.

[Related: Rangers one win from first World Series title]

The first attempted to identify who, specifically, had spoken to bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist during the eighth inning – La Russa or, perhaps, Duncan, his minor-league roommate and a friend for 50 years.

“Yeah, I think sometimes Dunc calls, but he’s usually doing the chart,” La Russa said. “I think I called.”

So, he recalled the conversations precisely, and thinks he might have been the one on the phone involved in them.

Maybe La Russa meant “Motte,” and “Lynn” popped out of his mouth. Maybe a thousand things, none of which will decide Game 6, all of which define Game 6.

The second question – and modification – involved the Cardinals’ methods of confirming the manager’s wishes in such situations, in order to eliminate confusion.

“If the guy can’t hear, sometimes he says it [back],” La Russa said. “I thought yesterday the first mention of [Jason] Motte was probably after he [Lilliquist, presumably] had hung up. Maybe I didn’t say it quickly enough.”

Maybe an overeager sort in the bullpen – Lilliquist or someone else – did indeed slam down the phone in the interest of immediacy. And maybe nobody noticed that the Cardinals were short one warming reliever.

Regardless, the nation’s ball writers variously called La Russa – and his actions – bizarre, foolish, absurd, clueless and, of course, Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon.”

Maybe he was some of those things. And maybe he was doing his duty, too.

I don’t know. But it’s not impossible.

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