The End of the Tony La Russa Era

Tony La Russa retired today.  He decided to leave baseball on a high note, stepping down as the manager of the Cardinals after leading the team on a thrilling, improbable streak to a world championship.

This move leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings.  Sometimes I like La Russa.  Sometimes I hate him.  Even when he’s winning, he can be infuriating.  Even when he’s losing, he can be fascinating.  No other manager sticks Skip Schumaker at second base, then leaves him there even after he’s proven he can’t play the position.  But, then again, no other manager is willing to try batting the pitcher eighth.  I still think that’s a good idea.

No matter how I feel about La Russa at the moment, there is no denying that he shaped the face of the St. Louis Cardinals.  For better and for worse.

He took over as manager in 1996.  That was back when Bill Clinton was campaigning for a second term, the Macarena was a hit song, and Hailee Steinfeld–the actress who played Mattie in 2010’s “True Grit”–wasn’t even born.

La Russa took the team from the fading embers of the contact-and-speed Ozzie Smith era to the electrifying tape-measure Mark McGwire era.  It wasn’t a graceful transition, and ended up alienating Smith as well as a legion of Cardinals fans.  There are still those who, to this day, yearn for the slaps and steals of Whiteyball.

La Russa guided the team through the days of the MV3: Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen.  But he also broke up the band.  His bizarre feud with Scott Rolen cast a dark shadow over what should have been a pleasant run at a title repeat in 2007.

The next few years were rough, but La Russa remained as the Cardinals built a new sort of team.  Pujols remained, but instead of being surrounded with elite hitters, he was paired with a couple of aces.  Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright were not always healthy at the same time.  But when they were, they made the Cardinals a team to be feared.

And now the Pujols years may be coming to an end.  It’s too soon to be sure, but there’s a fair chance that next season is an entirely new beginning.  If so, Tony La Russa took us all the way from the end of Whiteyball to the end of the Pujolsball.  That’s sixteen years.

It’s almost impossible to judge the skill of a manager.  There are too many factors.  If we want to be traditional–look to wins, postseason appearances, and titles–La Russa may be the best manager the Cardinals have ever had.  In his sixteen years, the Cardinals made the postseason nine times.  They went to three World Series.  They won two of them.  Only a Yankees fan could find those results unacceptable.

Of course, La Russa was gifted with incredibly talented players during his time with the Cardinals.  Lankford, McGwire, Drew, Edmonds, Pujols, Kile, Rolen, Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday, Berkman…  Just to name the standouts.   La Russa also had the benefit of the best pitching coach in baseball.  I’m not sure Dave Duncan isn’t the one really responsible for La Russa’s success in St. Louis.  There is no one like him and I suspect he will be missed even more than Tony in 2012.

Considering the folks surrounding La Russa, it’s damn near impossible to give him full credit for everything he did for the Cardinals.  But he shouldn’t be overlooked.  Chances are, La Russa had a finger in acquiring many of the players I listed above.  He was more than just a manager.  He exerted control over the team far beyond the confines of the dugout.

That was part of the reason Walt Jocketty–another talented person who lent his skill to La Russa’s legacy–left in 2007.  The Cardinals weren’t his team.  They were Tony’s team.  And they were handed over to John Mozeliak.  Outside of the surprising Chris Duncan trade, Mozeliak has largely been seen as an apparatus of La Russa’s influence.

When La Russa wanted Matt Holliday, Mozeliak got Matt Holliday.  When La Russa wanted Brendan Ryan gone, Brendan Ryan was gone.  After Tony expressed a desire to improve the “character” of the clubhouse, Mozeliak brought in Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, and Nick Punto.  When Colby Rasmus wore out his welcome, he was shipped off for veteran pitching depth.

Things are going to change now.  Tony La Russa is no longer in charge.  What does that mean?  Is that good?  Is it bad?  I don’t have the answer for that.  When you look at the decisions La Russa made–and the fact that he was being paid millions to make them–it’s hard not to think the team is better off without him.  But when you look at his tenure in St. Louis–the years between 1996 and today– it was, overall, an amazing time to be a Cardinals fan.

I often disagreed with Tony La Russa.  I often hated his decisions. I often wanted him gone. But the Tony La Russa era was far more than the sum of its parts.  It’s very possible that I will never see a more prosperous stretch of Cardinal baseball.

So I want to thank Tony La Russa for the last sixteen years.  I don’t know if he’s responsible for any of it.  But I also don’t know if that matters anymore.