Love him or hate him, Tony La Russa should at least earn respect for what he accomplished in his 33 years as a major league manager and 16 years leading the St. Louis Cardinals.
La Russa retired yesterday, adding his own personal storybook ending to the Cardinals historical World Series championship run by going out on top.
His legacy should be unquestionable. La Russa has 2,728 regular season victories, third-most in baseball history behind Connie Mack with 3,731 and John McGraw with 2,763. He’s managed 5,097 games, becoming only the second person in sports history, not just baseball, to achieve the 5,000 game milestone in June. In five years, he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
La Russa won six pennants — three National League, three American League — and World Series titles in 1989 with the A’s and 2006 and of course this year with the Cardinals. He’s only the second manager to win two championships for the Cards, with Billy Southworth the other, and he’s the winningest manager in team history with 1,408 victories.
Numbers aside, he impacted the game in other ways as well. Whether you like or loathe the way he would manage, run relievers in and out depending on the match-up or where he would bat particular players, he had a point to what he was doing. Chris Carpenter talked about that during a news conference yesterday, saying, “Everything that he does, there’s a reason behind. He’s got numbers, he’s got match-ups, everything. I’m not sure there are a whole lot of people who could match the dedication, the preparation and the ability to put it all together like him.”
La Russa made the decision to retire in August, telling Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak about it at the time but not sharing it with the players until after the World Series celebration at Busch Stadium on Sunday. In retrospect, of course, that casts everything we saw throughout the postseason run in a different light, which is something that Carpenter mentioned yesterday as well.
“I saw him smile more in the last few months during baseball games than I ever saw in the eight years I was here before. He was enjoying the moment,” Carpenter said. And the team definitely gave their manager an incredible retirement gift. “When I sat there last night thinking about it, I was extremely excited, even more so, about winning. Because it would have stunk sending him out losing.”
Personally, as a Cardinals fan for 12 seasons now, La Russa is the only manager I’ve known for the team. I admire and respect what he’s done, and definitely appreciate the things that perhaps don’t get recognized by those so quick to criticize and bash his every move and especially misstep.
During the media firestorm last week after game five of the World Series, when every national sports writer and broadcaster and fans of other teams were all gleefully mocking La Russa’s explanation for “phone-gate,” I saw it differently. The real reason the Cardinals lost that game had nothing to do with the bullpen, nothing to do with who did or didn’t pitch during that eighth inning, nothing to do with whose name was or wasn’t mentioned over the phone. It was the Cardinals leaving runner after runner after runner on base and not being able to capitalize with hits when they needed them. Even the now World Series MVP twice came up with runners on base and twice swung at the first pitch for outs. Yet La Russa let the story on the game be the phones and miscommunication, accepted blame for it all and took the pressure off his players by absorbing all the criticism and answering question after question about what the media wanted the issue to be.
I know there are legions of Cardinals fans who don’t like him, have never liked him, don’t like his style or his tactics or his treatment of/feuds with players such as Scott Rolen and Colby Rasmus. One blog I read this morning spent paragraphs detailing those issues, and summed up 2004 and 2005 — the back-to-back 100 win seasons — in two sentences. Opinions differ.
But we should all be able to agree that the results on the field are beyond impressive, and the legacy that Tony La Russa leaves behind is something that can make us proud to be Cardinals fans.
For that, we should all be saying thank you.
Christine Coleman is the senior St. Louis Cardinals reporter for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on Twitter, @CColeman802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow @AMilesFastball for the latest updates.
I’ve had my “Tony, what are you thinking?!?” moments through the years, but I’ve also had plenty of “THAT … was brilliant!” moments, as well. If you want to know about the kind of manager he is, just listen to his players talk about him. There’s so much respect and trust there, no matter how much (or little) they’ve played for the man. David Freese called him a friend. There’s no denying his wacky, wonderful techniques — OR his championship character.
Thank you, Tony!