Happy Trails, Tony La Russa

What a way to go out. For Tony LaRussa, it was probably the best managing job he’s ever done. Over 10 games out in August, rallying to make the playoffs on the final day of the season, beating Philadelphia in 5 games, beating Milwaukee in 6, and then playing what is very likely the best World Series game in history, before clinching his third World Series Championship in Game 7 against the Texas Rangers.

To top it all off, the Monday morning after celebrating the World Series Championship, he decided to call it a career.

33 years

2,728 career wins

3 American League Championships

3 National League Championships

3 World Series Championships

Oh, and 7 NL Central Championships in the last 16 years as the Cardinals’ manager. It’s safe to say that it has been the most successful run in franchise history where the Cardinals were never far from the front.

I wasn’t quick to write this post because I really wanted to take a different angle on it, but I had no idea what I wanted to write. Sure, anyone can reiterate statistics of what the man has done. This year will go down as his greatest managerial performance ever. Perhaps he deserves some credit for it, but I think his desire to retire changed his perspective and I think that had a great impact on exactly how the team developed this season.

In previous seasons it was a complaint of mine and many others that the team played tight. This year, it was the Rangers that looked tight when crunch time came. The Cardinals on the other hand, they were having a good time and enjoying themselves. It was accompanied by performance on the field.

It was an attitude that we saw in the Cardinals down the stretch. And to Tony’s credit, he embraced it.

This team was different than any other team and performed unlike many other teams would have.

In Spring Training the Cardinals lost their ace. Rather than working out away from the team, Adam Wainwright was a fixture on the Cardinals’ bench during home games. He traveled with the team in the playoffs. He became the team’s cheerleader. His job was easy, keep the guys up on the rail cheering their teammates on. Certainly a difference from other teams who failed down the stretch who had allegations of guys hanging out in the clubhouse rather than cheering their teams on.

Injuries slowed the team. The team that ranked near the bottom of minor league farm systems found themselves in great need of it. Guys like Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Fernando Salas, who Cardinals fans knew of, stepped up big when given their opportunity to play. Then there were new guys like Daniel Descalso, Tony Cruz, Lance Lynn, and Eduardo Sanchez who played big roles.

The team had weaknesses. By the end of April, the Cardinals had no closer and no left handed relievers capable of getting reliable outs. By the end of May, we began to wonder if we needed a better defensive short stop and another starting pitcher. At the trade deadline, John Mozeliak went and got them everything they needed.

The team’s persona changed. The addition of Lance Berkman was the big move, in my opinion. He gave the Cardinals a veteran with clout who is the type of leader people think of when they think about a good leader. It was a figure this team had really been missing since Jim Edmonds was traded. When you watched games, he talked it up on the bench with veterans and rookies alike. While Albert Pujols keeps mostly to himself and only a few, Berkman did what was was needed, making some of the younger players feel accepted and relaxed.

If this season doesn’t illustrate that it’s a total organizational effort to create a winning team, I don’t know what does.

To me, the move to retire wasn’t a surprise. He changed through the course of the year. It’s funny how your perspective changes when there’s an end date in mind. And I saw his wife on the post-game coverage on the MLB Network. I can’t remember ever seeing his wife before. He seemed relaxed and enjoying the moment.

LaRussa embraced the change in the team persona and because of that the team excelled. That’s reason enough to give him the credit for it.

I’m not the biggest Tony LaRussa fan, but I sure hope he enjoys retirement. That elephant keeper job sounded like fun.