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November 1, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Through the Years: Tony La Russa

by Larry Granillo


Tony La Russa uses hairspray.

The newly-crowned and paraded World Champion St. Louis Cardinals called a press conference Monday morning. Initial speculation wondered if the Cards had somehow wrangled a long-term contract out of Albert Pujols. Other, more cautious spectators imagined that it was about a contract extension for catcher Yadier Molina. At least one person thought the Cards were making an announcement about the latest Wezen-Ball post.

Instead, the Cardinals shocked the baseball world by announcing the retirement of 34-year-veteran manager Tony La Russa. It would make La Russa the first manager in history to retire following a World Series victory. Considering that the announcement came less than 72 hours after the final out of the Series, it must not have been that difficult of a decision for La Russa.

It's been a long time since the world was without the big-brained manager. La Russa has been managing almost continuously since August 2, 1979, when he took over the reigns of the Chicago White Sox from Don Kessinger. The only gap in his employment came in 1986, when Chicago General Manager Hawk Harrelson - yes, that Hawk Harrelson - fired him 64 games into the season. He was hired some three weeks later by the A's and has been managing ever since.

It's a bit difficult to imagine what baseball must have been like with a wide-eyed La Russa taking the bench for the first time, before he became synonymous with pitching changes, utility infielders, and, oh yes, superstar-slugging first-basemen. Thankfully, the historic record is there to give us a reminder. Let's take a look at how manager Tony La Russa was viewed through the years.

Tony's first full-year as a manager came in 1980, as his 27-27 record the last two months of the 1979 season seemed to impress the White Sox owners. This is how the writers of the 1980 Street & Smith's Baseball Yearbook described him:

The White Sox have the only manager in modern history licensed to practice law. But even though Tony LaRussa passed the Florida bar last winter, you'll find more baseball statistics than legal briefs in his possession. The 35-year-old barrister-manager prefers to keep his case-load on the baseball field, and to that end, his White Sox were 27-27 after he took over last Aug 2.

LaRussa isn't predicting pennant, but this low-key manager who was raised a few doors away from Al Lopez's old home in Ybor City, Fla., knows full well his White Sox are housed in a division which some have said, "Nobody seems to want to win."

As we can see, the LaRussa-as-law-school-genius talk began awfully early in his career. What I find most interesting, though, is the reference to "baseball statistics" and his description as a "low-key manager". I'm not sure those words are used alongside La Russa all that much these days.

The rest of La Russa's 7+ years stint with the White Sox was a bit tumultuous, with Tony fighting for his job after a disappointing first half in 1982 (after he "brazenly picked his emerging team to win the American Leeague West") and then nearly leaving the team at the start of the 1986 season. He did come back for that campaign, but didn't make it out of June under the questionable eye of Hawk Harrelson.

The A's quickly snatched up the unemployed manager. As the 1987 Street & Smith's points out, Oakland's play (much like those '79 White Sox) improved under La Russa's tutelage.

But a resurgence under midseason manager Tony LaRussa made them one of baseball's most improved teams in the second half.

It was a good situation to be in, with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire joining the squad at the same time as La Russa. He was also introduced to Dennis Eckersley early into his stint with Oakland, a pairing that will go down for the ages. By 1990, La Russa had mastered his bullpen philosophy so well that The Sporting News Baseball Guide said this:

La Russa depends heavily on his bullpen, which saved 121 of Oakland's 203 victories the last two seasons.

From a present-day perspective, that's a bit of an understatement.

After three straight World Series appearances (including one victory), La Russa's A's ran into some trouble mostly caused by old age and injuries. After the 1995 season, La Russa exercised an escape clause from his contract and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for a large contract. The move had its pros and cons:

La Russa brings a portfolio of success, having directed the A's into the World Series from 1988-90. But when he didn't have the horses, La Russa's teams finished well out of the running. This brings to mind a conversation in which La Russa asked former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog for some advice about managing in St. Louis and the National League. "Hell," Herzog said, "I should be getting advice from you. You've finished last two times in the last three years and you're making $1.5 million a year."

It was another good first impression for La Russa, whose 1996 Cardinals would go on to win 88 games and first place in the NL Central. The 1997 Sporting News tells us that La Russa and the team managed that record despite an uncomfortable clubouse:

For the first two months last season, the intense La Russa created the impression - a mistake, he says - that the players couldn't have any fun or relax even before or after games.

The Cards won their division again in 2002 (which happened to be the sophomore year of a man named Pujols), but it wasn't without its controversy. From The Sporting News:

Tony La Russa remains almost as polarizing a figure as he has been successful one in St Louis. His overwhelming selection as NL Manager of the Year was discolored by a five-game loss in the NLCS that hinged partly on several pitching decisions. But La Russa remains a powerful dugout presence. He successfully rationed pitching early last season despite a spate of injuries and the death of No. 2 starter Darryl Kile. … Still, La Russa is nagged by his failure to reach the World Series in St Louis. Even after last season's success, he offered to walk away if management believed another manager would be better equipped to take the team another step.

Of course, the guys at Athlon in 2003 thought a bit differently:

Tony La Russa did the best managing job of his career in 2002, nursing his team through Kile's shocking death, manipulating an injury-riddled starting staff and winning the division.

La Russa and his Cardinals finally made it to the World Series in 2004, only to get swept by the history-making Boston Red Sox. Even with the World Series loss (La Russa's third in four tries), The Sporting News noticed:

Many believe Tony La Russa should have been the NL's Manager of the Year - and not just because his team won 105 games. La Russa changed his style with this veteran group, allowing his players more freedom to police themselves. They responded well and should get more of the same in 2005.

The Cardinals did win the World Series in 2006, but little was said about La Russa's contributions to that club the following year. The team took advantage of a weak division and peaked at the right time. Still, it added another ring to La Russa's record and helped secure his case as one of the greatest managers of all-time.

The 2011 championship only works to further that argument, which may be why many expected him to continue on in the roll in 2012. But Tony La Russa has always been one to do his own thing - be it get a law degree, wear some hairspray, or manage a bullpen - and Monday's announcement was just more of the same. It will be a weird thing to look around the league next year and not see La Russa sitting on a bench somewhere, but his retirement has been well-earned. It was a long, unique career, and one certainly deserving of Cooperstown.

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