Tony La Russa, the winningest manager in St. Louis Cardinals history, decided to leave his post as the manager after driving the wildest Postseason train all the way to his third World Series championship. This week, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that they would retire his #10 jersey.
La Russa is a three-time World Series champion, a four-time Manager of the Year award winner and his 2,728 wins are third all-time behind Connie Mack and John McGraw, respectively. Furthermore, he and Mack are the only two managers/coaches in American sports history to have managed/coached in 5,000-plus games. He is now the fifth manager in Cardinals history to have their number retired, but he is only the second to be retired after having never played for the club (Whitey Herzog).
What’s bigger than the list of awards and accomplishments La Russa has received is how much he changed the way the game is played and managed. I think that he changed the game in three main ways:
1. Control – La Russa controlled every single aspect of every single game. He was infamous for rarely having the same lineup/batting order two games in a row. He did this to try and take advantage of even the most minute of advantages in his roster. He also injected his influence into the running game in a major way.
2. Specialization – He was one of the first managers to focus on batter-pitcher match-ups when making bullpen usage decisions. Before La Russa, it was incredibly rare to see a manager use more than two pitchers in one frame, but he made a habit of using three pitchers to get three outs on many occasions.
3. Closer – This might be La Russa’s calling card. He basically redefined the term “closer” to mean a pitcher who will be used when your team has the lead and there are only three more outs to get. Before La Russa, relief pitchers would normally close games out by pitching several innings. Now, it is a rarity for a closer to see more than one inning of work. Truly, La Russa helped create the blueprint for the Hall of Fame careers of Eckersley, Hoffman, and Rivera.
Baseball fans everywhere should be glad that La Russa could not shake his love for baseball as he weighed his career options. It is hard to imagine what the game would look like if he had followed the advice of his professors and pursued a career in law. Yet, in the court of public opinion, whether you love him or hate him, every fan should stop and ponder the genius and greatness of one of the greatest baseball minds we have ever seen.