After an improbable and historic run starting in late-August (where one Vegas book had the team at 500-1 winning the pennant, 999-1 winning World Championship) the St. Louis Cardinals happy flight found the ultimate happy destination.
And crusty manager Tony LaRussa wisely decided to take the first exit ramp out of the airport.
Many thought TLR’s ‘sudden’ retirement earlier this week was as equally stunning as the Cards winding up as World Series Champions – you know, the team that was supposed to be watching the postseason on TV.
I’m only stunned that so many other people were ‘stunned’.
As the Cardinals appeared to be an afterthought in the National League playoff race in late-July, La Russa had the look of a man who appeared to be growing tired of his profession. That could possibly be the result of some of his health problems during the season. We do know someone behind the visitors dugout at Milwaukee’s Miller Park touched a nerve making reference to it.
That would be the same dugout in which the Cards would celebrate winning the National League pennant 2+ months later.
And maybe it was that testy Cards-Brewers game on July 31 that wound up as the first turning point of St. Louis’s season, what ended up eventually lighting a fuse. When La Russa went on his now famous ‘DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY BONES ARE IN THAT HAND??’ rant, he basically laid down the gauntlet, and the team eventually rallied around it.
No, La Russa has never been popular in Milwaukee, or the North Side of Chicago, or many other National League ports for that matter. (But the question has to be asked: what if La Russa was the Brewers or the Cubs manager? Would you rather have TLR filling out the lineup card…or Mr. Spock (Ron Roenicke), or even worse Mike Quade?)
This wasn’t La Russa’s first impressive run under trying circumstances, a campaign that began with staff ace Adam Wainwright undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. In the middle of the 2002 season, La Russa and the Cardinals had to rally around the physical loss and emotional grief from the sudden death of pitcher Darryl Kile, and they wound up taking the team to that year’s NLCS.
And then there was the ’06 season, a Cardinals team that honestly did not deserve to be in the playoffs winning a weak NL Central with a 83-78 record. But the Cards had a seat at the table and La Russa helped turned that into a World Series Championship.
And Tony was also one of the all-time great innovators, not afraid of new ideas such as the pitcher hitting eighth in the batting order or his extreme early hooks on starting pitchers late into the 2011 season and especially in the playoffs.
It’s no surprise that coach Bob Knight was also one of LaRussa’s frequent visitors over the years, another equally controversial but successful icon.
Then there is the loyalty, from his long-time relationships with coaches Dave McKay and Dave Duncan, to even allowing disgraced slugger Mark McGwire to re-invent himself as a highly respected hitting coach. Again, it wasn’t about what public perception might think.
I do have my faults with LaRussa as well, the start of the BALCO era was when he had the Bash Brothers in Oakland in the late 1980’s, and obviously knew McGwire was on the juice when he assaulted the single-season record books a year later. I say TLR at least shares the blame in condoning that culture, along with the players themselves as well as Bud Selig for turning a blind eye during that period.
2011 ended up the crown-jewel of a 33-year career that began by turning the Chicago White Sox into unlikely contenders. Along with general manager John Mozeliak (complete with dorky eyeglasses smack straight out from 1968), the Cardinals built an eventual champion on the fly – from acquiring role players such as Rafael Furcal and Mark Rzepczynski, to allowing Jon Jay and Allen Craig to step in as vital cogs, to letting David Freese grow himself into becoming legendary in October.
This edition of the Redbirds was truly about 25 separate parts finding chemistry at the right time, with the timely help of an Atlanta Braves collapse.
(Well, GM Doug Melvin will tell you about getting a half-year out of Francisco Rodriguez (bold acquistion, eh…) and trading a prize prospect (Brett Lawrie) for a #3 starter (Shaun Marcum) who morphed into a post-St. Louis Jeff Suppan by the time fall rolled around. And in all fairness I’ll also give Milwaukee Gallardo and John Axford and a few others…)
Where does St. Louis go from here?
Now on top of trying to re-sign that Pujols guy, the organization has to suddenly look to somehow fill the shoes of TLR. Not surprisingly it took about two seconds for Terry Francona’s name to come up in speculation, who does have the resume to fill the daunting job description. The Cards would also be replacing one manager who may have possibly been slightly over-medicated at times during the ’11 season with another.
Or maybe Pujols moves on, and there is that period of transition. Still, from the front office down to the farm system I don’t see the Cards falling too far from the top of the NL Central in the foreseeable future.
Again, hate La Russa’s guts if you must, but it was his heart that made him a winner for 3+ decades.