Only hours after the St. Louis Cardinals’ improbable comeback in Game 6 of the World Series in which they stood on the precipice of elimination not once, but twice, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “barring an eleventh hour change of heart” Tony La Russa would return to manage the Cardinals in 2012 for a 17th season. Later that day, the Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 6-2 to win a National League record 11th World Series title. Seventy-two hours later, that eleventh hour had arrived. After 33 years of managing in the big leagues, La Russa has announced his retirement.
Well, this sure threw a monkey wrench into my plans.
When I read about his decision, I was in the midst of polishing off an article about how La Russa should come here to Boston and return the Red Sox to their winning ways after their stunning September collapse. The piece had all kind of clever references to La Russa being persuaded to come to New England over Thanksgiving dinner complete with Dave Loggins serenading him. Please come to Boston for the springtime.
Oh well, so much for that.
I suppose there is nothing to prevent Red Sox GM Ben Cherington from arranging a turkey summit with La Russa in Alamo, California. But all things considered, La Russa would be crazy to come here up I-93 North. Sure he might have brought the Red Sox another championship or two, maybe even three. But if Terry Francona could be run out of town on a rail by Red Sox Nation after winning two World Series titles here, what would prevent La Russa from being spared the same fate if the Red Sox were to stumble under his watch?
No, the time has come for Tony La Russa to exit gracefully on the highest of all notes, enjoy the sunset and perhaps rescue a few more animals along the way. A speech in Cooperstown is also surely on the order paper. Perhaps the Baseball Hall of Fame will simultaneously induct La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Whether he is inducted on his own or with his equally formidable contemporaries, there will be a place for La Russa in the shrine of baseball immortality.
The game of baseball will, of course, move on without him but it won‘t be quite the same. Since I began watching baseball more than three decades ago, La Russa has been a stoic fixture in the dugout with his arms folded first with the Chicago White Sox, then the Oakland Athletics, and for the past sixteen seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. He has spent nearly half his lifetime filling out lineup cards and manipulating them to the advantage of his teams.
In thirty-three years, La Russa has led his teams to the post-season fourteen times. He guided the Athletics to three straight AL pennants and earned three NL pennants with the Cardinals. In six World Series, La Russa won three rings. The first came with Oakland in 1989 in a World Series best remembered for an earthquake. The second came in 2006 with a Cardinals team that had won only 83 games during the regular season. Despite their modest won-loss record, La Russa joined Sparky Anderson in becoming only the second manager to win a World Series title in both leagues.
As improbable as their 2006 championship seemed, the thought of the Cardinals winning a World Series two months ago seemed impossible, as the Redbirds were 10½ games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card standings in late August. Even more remarkable than that was La Russa managing while afflicted with shingles.
But La Russa would recover and so too would the Cardinals with mid-season acquisitions like starting pitcher Edwin Jackson from the White Sox (via Toronto), shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers, and bullpen help from ex-Blue Jays Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepczynski as well as former Ranger Arthur Rhodes. The Cardinals were also wise to resist the temptation to send Lance Berkman to Texas. It also didn‘t hurt that Chris Carpenter regained his form as a number one starter and Albert Pujols returned quickly from a broken wrist to do what King Albert does best. Then there was David Freese, a so-so third baseman whose bat earned him both NLCS and World Series MVP honors. And let us not forget the Rally Squirrel. Could anyone blame La Russa for enjoying this season more than the rest?
In the grand scheme of things, I suppose passing John McGraw for second place on the all-time managerial win list wasn‘t so important to La Russa after all. Is he any less worthy of a plaque in the Hall of Fame without those additional 36 games in the win column?
Yet for all of La Russa‘s success as a big league manager, it is worth remembering that he very nearly took another path altogether. After his less than memorable playing career ended in 1973 with the Chicago Cubs, La Russa would enroll in law school at Florida State University, graduating with a J.D. in 1978 and passing the Florida state bar exam in 1980. But La Russa ultimately chose to spend his life on a baseball field rather than in a courtroom. He remarked, “I decided I‘d rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living.” For that, a whole generation of baseball fans is grateful. So long, Tony.