La Russa leaves on his own terms
Relaxed through Cards' run, legendary skipper goes out on top
There was a peace about Tony La Russa the entire postseason. Phone-gate? He made jokes about it. The pressure of Game 6? La Russa shrugged and smiled. Then on Sunday morning, he informed Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt of his decision to step down as manager and was moving on.
This is a man who, when asked "How are you?" often replied, "I'll know in seven hours when the game is over." This is a man who never talked about the next day's game, only getting "nine good innings" from every one of his players that day. La Russa raged when his players were brushed back, once shredded his lineup card because he felt one of his players showed up the opposition.
On the field after Friday night's championship victory, La Russa repeatedly said, "This is unbelievable." Asked -- after all his team accomplished, coming from 10 1/2 games back with 32 to play and three back with five to play and being down to the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers in each of the playoff series -- if this was the most satisfying of his three championships, he said, "Yes ... I guess so because it's the most unbelievable."
La Russa answered passionately, sincerely, with none of the "no one believed in us" that so often trails championships. He kept smiling. He laughed. He had 33 years, managing 5,097 games, 2,728 victories, six pennants, three world championships. La Russa could have won the pennant in 1983, only Jerry Dybzinski fell down. And the World Series in 1988, but for Kirk Gibson's home run. And the 1992 pennant, only two of his key relievers were hurt, Dennis Eckersley was in the game too early and Robbie Alomar took him deep to change the series, and history.
Fewer than 36 hours after beating the Rangers in the World Series, La Russa informed DeWitt that he was going to retire. The Cardinals owner now has to replace La Russa and has even more pressure on him to re-sign Albert Pujols, but he can accept that in exchange for the three pennants and two World Series championships La Russa's teams won this decade. DeWitt can accept the fact that the Cards now play in a beautiful new park that was financed because La Russa and Walt Jocketty traded for Mark McGwire, who promptly hit 70 home runs and made that stadium possible.
DeWitt appreciates the fact that every year, La Russa went home, thought things over, then made up his mind on a one-year contract. He appreciates the fact that whenever feelers were sent out about possibly managing elsewhere, La Russa refused to even discuss the issue with his representative(s) because he was managing the Cardinals, and, especially, if someone else was managing that other team.
La Russa's managerial ranks
DeWitt appreciates that La Russa managed one game at a time, with no talk of "If we win (---) out of (---)," which was a major factor in this team's remarkable comeback to the playoffs.
"He never allowed us to focus on anything but the game at hand," says second baseman Ryan Theriot. "We were never looking up at how far back we were, only focused on what we had to do that day. Each day. All of a sudden we were in the playoffs."
La Russa doesn't know precisely what he'll do. He will continue to throw himself into his Animal Rights Foundation, which began out of the love of animals he shares with his wife Elaine and daughters Bianca and Devin. It began as a center for abused animals, then it branched out to the marriage of abused women and abused animals, and has turned out to be a remarkable social and humanitarian institution.
La Russa could turn back to some law practice, or he could find something within the game that attracts his interest.
La Russa's first job was managing the White Sox's Double-A Knoxville club in 1978, but halfway through the season, owner Bill Veeck fired Bob Lemon and replaced him with Larry Doby and brought up La Russa to be a coach. One problem: La Russa did not know how to hit fungo popups.
In those days, traveling with the Red Sox for the Boston Globe, I went to the park early every day to shag for early hitting. There, in Comiskey Park, I met La Russa, and three days in a row caught his popups as he practiced at 2:30 CT.
He didn't know everything then, and on the afternoon before the Cardinals won his third ring, he brought a subject around to all he still doesn't know. "I never pretended to be a genius," he often said. "I am a pretty good learner. I've had a lot of experiences."
La Russa quickly learned how to hit fungo popups, he learned how to match relievers, learned to make Eckersley a closer, learned to put Adam Wainwright at the ends of games in the fall of 2006, learned how to deal with the distractions of Colby Rasmus and turned the improbable into the Cardinals' 11th championship.
He is a man who studied the World War II speeches of Franklin Roosevelt and took care of someone else's stray cat named Kachina as if she were his daughter. La Russa managed with an eye-for-an-eye edge, and when he knew it was time, he walked away as a World Series champion and one of the greatest managers who ever lived.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.