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September 6, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The La Russa-Rasmus Feud

by Steven Goldman

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On Sunday, the long-rumored antipathy between Tony La Russa and his young center fielder, Colby Rasmus, broke out into the open, when it was revealed that the player had asked to be traded by the Cardinals in late July. Though Rasmus denied the story, La Russa confirmed it. Subsequently, Albert Pujols landed on the kid with both feet:

If you don’t want to be part of this great organization, man, this is one of the special organizations that you want to play for. And if you don’t want to be a part of this, then you know what? You need to figure out a place to go and play.

Thanks for the TLC there Albert. Given recent public appearances, Pujols can’t be counted on to know what’s in his best interest or that of the Cardinals organization, and he’s off base here. Rasmus might “figure out a place to go and play,” and perhaps he would be happier and more productive. The consequence for Pujols—and this may well come to pass regardless of what happens to Rasmus—would be that he and Matt Holliday age into irrelevance together, surrounded by I’m-just-happy-to-be-here guys like Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan. This might make for a sunnier, more harmonious clubhouse, but it would likely preclude further championship rings. There should be no rush to judgment on the part of La Russa, Pujols, or general manager John Mozeliak, lest they prove the old adage “A fool and his impact-level center fielder are soon parted.”

The fool here may well be La Russa. I don’t know Colby Rasmus, and it is entirely possible that being around him is far less entertaining than watching him play. This would not be at all surprising: it is a lucky few of us who have never had to deal with that one crazy coworker who makes coming to what would otherwise be a pleasant workplace a nightmare. I once shared a cubicle wall with a guy who would shout things like, “MIDGETS! MIDGETS! MIDGETS! MIDGETS LANDING ON MY TOES!” as I was trying to edit columns of tiny numbers—there were days when the only thing keeping that guy alive was the absence of a blunt object heavier than a pad of post-it notes. Perhaps Rasmus shouts out things like that during Pujols’ at-bats. Maybe he doesn’t shower after games. Maybe he showers during games while wearing La Russa’s underwear. We won’t know until such time as the Cardinals start talking or La Russa writes his autobiography and settles a few scores. I submit that unless Rasmus is doing something immoral or illegal, whether he comports himself with appropriate clubhouse dignity (whatever that is), or if La Russa likes him or not is irrelevant to what should be the manager’s main concern: how Rasmus can help the Cardinals win games now and in the future.

“Future” is the key word in the foregoing, because the Cardinals have plummeted out of the National League Central race. Fortunately, Rasmus, who turned 24 in August, has plenty of future left. The average major-league center fielder is hitting .260/.326/.403; Rasmus is hitting .264/.349/.495. Despite being inconsistent—he piled most of his hitting into April and June—and leg problems that caused him to miss chunks of July and August, he has made important progress this year, holding his own against same-side pitchers after hitting only .160/.219/.255 against them his rookie year. Rasmus is going to be a key part of the Cardinals’ future or, if traded, a key part of some other organization. Either way, he’s going places. The question is if the Cardinals want to ride him or watch him go. This is the kind of decision that can hold a franchise down for years.

It is possible that La Russa is suffering from hardening of the managerial arteries. La Russa will turn 66 in October. Historically, many older managers have lost patience with the care and feeding of the young around retirement age. Skippers like Casey Stengel and Sparky Anderson, who thought of themselves as teachers up through the midpoint of their careers, didn’t want much to do with rookies as they headed into the homestretch. Joe Torre’s maladroit handling of the 25-year-old Matt Kemp may be symptomatic of the manager’s age. Torre is 70 now, but even as a youthful 64-year-old he preferred a 36-year-old Bernie Williams in center field over any more youthful, limber replacement the Yankees might have proposed.

That said, there is no safe generalization to be made about aging managers. Connie Mack built his great 1929-1931 A’s team in his late 60s. In his last years, Tommy Lasorda brought along a plethora of youngsters, including Mike Piazza. Bobby Cox will go out this year at 69 with Jason Heyward, 20, as a final monument—and Cox might have used Heyward last year if he had been allowed. Cox probably hasn’t thought of it in such morbid terms, but there is a chance that Heyward’s baseball career will be longer than the remainder of Cox’s life. It would certainly have outlasted any reasonable extension that Cox could have taken had he not wanted to step down.

Some managers, wanting to go out on a high note, might have pressed the Braves to keep the kid on the farm for another year and sign a 33-year-old veteran to hold his place. Cox did not, and though we can’t say if it’s because he was simply so enthused with the kid’s potential that he knew he would be better than, say, another go-‘round with Garret Anderson or if he was thinking of Heyward’s place in the circle-of-franchise-life that we’re discussing here, the effect is the same: Cox positioned the team to move on without him. The irony is that he has benefited from the decision even as he heads for the door.

As with Heyward and Cox, Rasmus’s career will far outlast La Russa’s, but the manager doesn’t seem to be thinking on that level, failing to communicate to Rasmus the reasons for frequent non-injury benchings. Traditionally, a manager does not owe it to his charges to iterate the reasoning behind his every move, but there are times, and this is clearly one of them, where it is more expedient to do so than not. Here, perhaps, is where we run into the problem of graybeard managers: the indignity of a senior citizen and two-time World Series winning manager having to hold himself accountable to a twentysomething ballplayer with less than a thousand career at-bats. If La Russa was thinking of the team’s future, he might be more willing to speak slowly, use small words, or whatever it takes to make Rasmus, to paraphrase Sessue Hayakawa, happy in his work.

In his anti-Rasmus rant, Pujols said “To play in this organization, just behind the Yankees in World Series (victories), to play in the postseason almost every year—it’s pretty special.” Pujols had to say “almost every year” because this October he’s going to be home re-felting his pool table instead of playing in the National League Division Series. The break might seem a fluke to him now, but the Cardinals have made it into October just once in four years since winning the World Series in 2006, and it’s not the first time the Cards have gone soft; even this great organization has had its fallow periods, be it the later Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre years or the long run of mediocre teams that lay between the pennants of 1967 and 1968 and Herzog’s championship of 1982. As Stengel once observed, it is far easier to tear a club down than to build it up. The Cardinals can get a fast start towards the former by pushing Rasmus out the door just because he doesn’t like his manager.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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