He has danced in the Oakland ballet and he also had a book written about him (no, not Moneyball or Moneyball II, due out soon). He has won 2,114 regular-season games, ten division championships and four Manager of the Year awards. Many of baseball’s experts rank him as a genius in the dugout. But for all his genius, this guy has only won one World Series ring, back in 1989 with the Oakland A’s.
Of course, by now, you know I am talking about Tony LaRussa.
In his office before Game 3 of the NLCS, LaRussa could be found in his office nibbling his fingernails to shreds. “I’ve been around forever. Still, at this time of year, I get nervous, too.” Even geniuses sweat sometimes. The Cardinals lost the next three games in Houston before winning the next two in St. Louis to proceed to the World Series.
Throughout his career, LaRussa has had many close calls. In 1988, Kirk Gibson hit his famous pinch-hit home run which deflated the A’s and two years later they were swept by a Cincinnati team under the leadership of Joe Torre. There have been many other times a LaRussa-led team got close to the World Series, but didn’t make it. The most notable example was in the 2002 postseason, when LaRussa’s team swept the defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks only to be beat by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.
“That was just heart-breaking,” LaRussa said about the 2002 series with the Giants. “I thought, ‘Here’s a group of men that deserve to get to the World Series.’ It just shows you there’s no justice in baseball.”
This season the Cardinals, under LaRussa’s reign, won 105 games. They had the most consistent lineup and played peerless defense at nearly every position. Their pitching was ranked second in the National League in ERA. But this year LaRussa and the Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox.
But would any of the Cardinal players prefer another manager? Of course not.
“He has a feel for every one of us, he knows what buttons to push, and he knows when to say something and when not to,” Ray King, a lefty relief pitcher, said. “I remember when we were in San Francisco this year, he came up o the pitchers and all he said was, ‘We’re going to go after Barry Bonds.’ I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. This guy believes in us.’”
When Scott Rolen was hit by a pitch from a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Tony LaRussa went after Lloyd McClendon.
“You know what he’s got?” said Roger Cedeno, tapping his chest. “This guy’s got heart. He cares about his team. He won’t let us go down. He pushes you up.”
Even opposing coaches have praise for Tony LaRussa.
“What I always tell people is, ‘If you can’t play for Tony, then you’ve got a problem,’” says Gary Gaetti, Houston’s hitting coach and former LaRussa player. “He only asks you to play hard and then he stands up for you with everything he’s got.”
So, the guy who has experimented with hitting his pitcher eighth, established the modern bullpen with Dennis Eckersley, hit Larry Walker second in the order and removed Jason Marquis with an 0-1 count on a batter in the playoffs has not won a World Series in St. Louis. He’s still a pretty good manager, even though someone in an airplane circled Busch Stadium with a banner reading “Fire LaRussa.”
I know twenty nine teams that would scramble to add the veteran manager to their dugout.
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