La Russa, Out on Top

It’s almost the way you might imagine people to have felt when Casey Stengel retired, except that Stengel went out not with a bang but with a medical whimper. In his fourth season managing the comic-opera toddlerhood of the New York Mets, Stengel fell from a car, broke his hip, and faced a long recuperation. The greatest manager of his generation, and maybe of all baseball to that point—ten pennants and seven World Series titles in twelve seasons, including a staggering five consecutive World Series titles in his first five seasons managing the ancient dyanstic Yankees.

And he was done. The Ol’ Perfesser walked on a twisted cane to a Shea Stadium press conference and field ceremony and said, simply, “If I can’t walk out to the mound to change a pitcher, I’m not capable of managin’ anymore.” They put Stengel’s uniform with number 37 into a glass display case and the man himself into the Hall of Fame shortly thereafter, a special vote waiving the five-year retirement rule to induct him (with Ted Williams) in 1966. But everybody thought there’d be something missing knowing Casey Stengel wasn’t out there managing a game, befuddling writers and listeners alike with his virtuosic triple-talk, or keeping them laughing that they might not weep (I been in this game a hundred years but I see new ways to lose I never knew were invented yet) over his Amazin’ Mets.

It would not be untoward if some people today think the Hall might do likewise for Tony La Russa, who decided to retire when he was at the absolute top of his game, two days after he finished shepherding the St. Louis Cardinals to the unlikeliest World Series triumph of . . . maybe ever. Painfully few of the greats call it quits so well, and so triumphantly. And there’s already something missing, terribly, knowing that La Russa isn’t out there managing a game, or turning a ball game into a chess match, somewhere.

Hoist the big prize, retire at the top of the beanhill . . .

It’s hard and often painful enough to see great athletes lingering beyond their prime, looking like sad imitations of themselves. Willie Mays may have looked the saddest of them all in his final four seasons, even though he ended his career in a World Series; Sandy Koufax, by contrast, saddened a world when he called it a career at a mere age thirty, after arguably the greatest season of a career that was the very personification of ascension. Mickey Mantle finally looked like the near-cripple his always-testy legs had too long threatened to leave him; Jackie Robinson wouldn’t let himself look anywhere near that way, when his battered knees told him to quit. Joe DiMaggio called it a career when he couldn’t bear the thought of another season as what his brother said: “He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio anymore.”

It’s just as painful to see great minds of the games lingering when the games pass them by, or they simply can’t walk away no matter how their teams are doing, or they can’t let go of the image, the prestige, the money, the whatever. Sometimes, they walk away in disgust when it blows up in their faces. Actually, in one case, Thomas Boswell was moved to lead: “They say you can’t fire the whole team, so you have to fire the manager. Nobody told Whitey Herzog.” The White Rat, “sick and tired of watching his Cardinals play baseball in a way that offended his sensibilities and injured his enormous pride,” took an enormous hike—in early July 1990. Saying he was embarrassed by a team that flat quit on him, though his words were “I can’t get them to play,” Herzog flew the coop.

Joe Torre, lowballed by the Yankees, decamped for the Dodgers, leading them to a National League Championship Series (a 4-1 smothering by the Phillies) and a National League Division Series (where the Dodgers, with the best record in the league, got manhandled by La Russa’s Cardinals), then retired after finishing fourth in 2010 to work in the commissioner’s office. Lou Piniella couldn’t work his 1990 magic in Cincinnati with later collections of Seattle Mariners (despite a 116-win season), Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Chicago Cubs, and got out in 2010, while the getting was still reasonable, and he had enough of what was left of his sanity. Sparky Anderson, the first before La Russa to win a World Series managing in each league, but disgusted over the 1994 strike, virtually suspended when he refused to manage replacement players to open spring training 1995 if need be, retired after the ’95 season.

La Russa didn’t wait for any new low. Even this season, he had no further to look than Boston to see what complacency and incohesion could do to an excellent manager. After the Red Sox’s stupefying collapse, Terry Francona fired himself before the Red Sox brass could even think about it. La Russa wasn’t going to let that happen to him. He brought off arguably the greatest miracle finish in the game’s history. Dead and buried at August’s end; standing at the top of the wild card heap at September’s end; world champions at October’s near-end.

“A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns and masks,” Don Corleone told Tom Hagen in The Godfather. La Russa, a lawyer who practised baseball and rewrote no few of its unwritten laws, stole something neither a lawyer nor a hundred men with guns and masks could steal last week. Barely 48 hours after the triumph that may well remain the first thing noted in future conversations about the man, and a lot of analysts were thinking aloud that the Cardinals might have a shot at getting back to the postseason next year, with or without Albert Pujols, La Russa called it a career before anything or anyone else could call it for him.

La Russa had been one of the earliest managers to determine that statistical analysis was as useful as gut instinct or personality knowledge in making the best of possible matchups. (Davey Johnson, who has just been re-upped to manage the Washington Nationals next year, was one of La Russa’s very few like-minded contemporaries; Herzog, building and winning the Runnin’ Redbirds pennant winners of the ’80s, didn’t talk about stats but sure did anticipate Moneyball with his knack for getting high on-base-percentage men at the front and rear ends of his lineups.) That enabled him to make competitors and a division winner out of the otherwise moribund Chicago White Sox in the early 1980s. It enabled him to keep an often contentious squad of Oakland Athletics owning the American League West in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it enabled him to keep various and sundry collections of Cardinals competitive, division-winning, and twice world champions from 1996-2011.

He fashioned a remarkable run of success in refining the bullpen mission. He converted a talented but troubled starter named Dennis Eckersley, then just beginning to conquer a longtime battle with the bottle, into an unfathomable ninth-inning stopper; he built bullpens based on his matchup and analysis with arms that were just right for the jobs at hand; he and his longtime consigliori, pitching coach Dave Duncan, had a genius for rehabilitating veteran starting pitchers and turning them from also-rans to near-aces. He borrowed a little of the Stengel book of using all 25 of your men, refined it through his analytical filter, and built teams that either remained pennant-competitive or didn’t stay away from it for very long if they fell.

La Russa made him the ninth-inning hammer they called Dennis the Menace . . .

Was he perfect? Even La Russa would admit he was anything but. At times his insistence that his was the right way cost him as much as it profited him. It may have cost him a shot at stopping the upstart Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series. (Twice he had late-inning leads to protect before the ninth inning and refused to think about Eckersley until his regularly appointed round. The A’s lost both those games en route the sweep.)

In his very first season managing the Cardinals, it led to estrangement rather than embrace for Ozzie Smith at the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. La Russa insisted Smith’s and new acquisition Royce Clayton’s springs (Smith’s a fine one, Clayton’s a weak one) were deceptive enough and Clayton would get most of the playing time in a shortstop platoon, which rankled the earnest Smith, who thought his spring had earned him the starting job and was already under duress from a painful divorce.

And God only knows what La Russa had to overcome following Bullpengate in Game Five of the World Series. Actually, he didn’t have to overcome all that much, once he found a way to think in terms other than how it might have cost him not just a game but a World Series. He merely owned up, closed his ranks, and made bloody well sure that there wasn’t a mistake the Cardinals or the Texas Rangers could make in Game Six that couldn’t be overcome by some good old don’t-even-think-about-quitting Cardinal baseball.

A man who makes a few mistakes and learns from every last one of them isn’t going to miss too many profitable opportunities. Maybe La Russa’s most profitable stubbornness was the one that might have gotten him the most broiling, except that it led to a trade which arguably meant the beginning of the impossible resurrection.

Talented but testy outfielder Colby Rasmus—much like another one-time Cardinal before him, Gregg Jefferies—had a serious problem. Like Jefferies in his early and notorious seasons with the Mets, following a phenomenal minor league career, Rasmus seemed incapable of accepting any baseball guidance other than his father’s. “[H]e doesn’t listen to the Cardinal coaches now, and that’s why he gets into his [funks], in my opinion,” La Russa told a St. Louis television station. “I actually feel concern for him, because he hears it from so many places, he’s got to be confused.”

The unknown soldier turned one of La Russa's most vivid conquerors . . .

Like Jefferies’s Mets, Rasmus’s Cardinals could have become a clubhouse divided into pro- and con- factions. At long enough last, and well before it could have helped blow up the team, the way Jefferies had done with the Mets, the Cardinals—who first denied trying to trade Rasmus though they acknowledged his trade request—shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays before this season’s non-waiver trade deadline. La Russa had to downplay talk that he himself had run Rasmus out of St. Louis. “I’ve heard it said that if you don’t get along with the manager in St. Louis you can’t play. That’s ridiculous,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If you get on Tony’s bad side you’re out of here. That’s wrong.”

Rasmus went to the Blue Jays with three relief pitchers for Octavio Dotel, Edwin Jackson, Corey Patterson, and Marc Rzepczynski. Patterson proved a non-factor but Dotel, Jackson, and Rzepczynski proved important to the Cardinals’ improbably stretch drive resurrection and postseason conquests. Some think the trade meant the postseason for the Redbirds, and La Russa might have agreed—if he hadn’t had and found ways to use 21 other men.

“Some grown men cried,” La Russa acknowledged after telling his players he was finished. “I kind of liked that, because they made me cry a few times.”

La Russa had struggled recently with a nasty battle with shingles. He also had one embarrassing DUI incident. He didn’t let either of them knock him off task or off message. Twice he had to close his players’ ranks in the eye of tragedy—when pitcher Darryl Kile and longtime Cardinal broadcaster Jack Buck died in the same week in 2002; and, when pitcher Josh Hancock died in a drunken-driving automobile wreck in 2007. He also had to withstand the heat when some of his most colourful, powerful players over time—Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco—were suspected and exposed as users of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. La Russa insisted he had little if any such knowledge, and while he was hammered by many, many others respected him for standing behind his players.

Today McGwire—who owned up to using such substances out of quiet desperation to recuperate from or play through injuries before he was named the Cardinals’ batting instructor—is a World Series-winning batting coach respected for his knowledge of the craft. He won a World Series ring playing for La Russa in 1988; he’ll be fitted for one shortly coaching for La Russa this season.

McGwire once left millions on the table rather than play at less than his proper capacity. La Russa is leaving likely money on the table in walking out at the top of baseball’s least likely beanhill. Certainly, La Russa—whose contract expired after the World Series—could have returned in 2012, writing his own ticket after the Cardinals’ surrealistic conquest. But he chose instead to retire when nothing could tarnish his achievement or his career at its finish. Until this season La Russa probably ranked at least in the lower four among the top ten managers of all time. As of Friday night, he’s probably shoved himself right there between Earl Weaver and Joe McCarthy, at number five.

So far as St. Louis is concerned, he’s number one. Even though, when they retire his uniform number, it’ll be a perfect ten.

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