Other than the All-Star game last season, Tony La Russa hasn't managed a baseball game since Game Seven of the 2011 World Series. Of all the stories about that crazy 2011 season -- and I remind that the Cardinals were considered to be toast as late as late August, to the point they were considering trading Lance Berkman to the Rangers after the deadline "with the Cardinals going nowhere" -- the craziest to be has always been that La Russa had told the Cardinals (if not his players) midway through the year that he planned to retire when the season was over. Tony La Russa cared more about winning than any manager I've ever seen, and his final season ended with one of the most amazing comebacks in baseball history, with La Russa secretly knowing this was going to be it for him. La Russa must have felt like he could bend time.
I know that La Russa, even a year-and-a-half into retirement, is extremely polarizing among baseball fans. (See our own Emma Span's review of La Russa's book.) He is even polarizing among Cardinals fans, and he won us two World Series. The thing that I loved more than anything about Tony La Russa was that he was the only person I knew who took Cardinals losses harder than I did. He often did this in a cranky, antagonistic, self-aggrandizing way, but you never doubted that it was in service of attempting to get better. Let there be no doubt, though: La Russa was not easy to love, even if he was your manager.
La Russa wanted to win in a way that few people want to do anything. He never looked content or relaxed, ever -- I saw him smile four times as manager of the Cardinals; when Rick Ankiel homered in his first game back in 2007, when David Freese hit that triple in Game Six and the two times he won the Series -- and his overpowering desire for control, power and, mostly, success was so oppressive it sometimes made it difficult to be happy for him. When the Cardinals won, fans cheered, but it wasn't freeing; it felt like getting an A on a test after your father locked you in a closet and screamed "STUDY, DAMN YOU!" for eight hours. By the end, as much as La Russa had done for the Cardinals, his methods were starting to calcify, and fans were a bit tired of him, the way you're tired of a family member: You loved him and you knew he'll be around forever … but if he decided to move out of town or maybe skip next Thanksgiving, that'd be OK too. Of course, then La Russa won the World Series, and we all pretended we'd never had any of these thoughts. We just retired his number, and all those thoughts went away.
Tony La Russa is a Hall of Famer, and a baseball innovator. He is by all accounts a nicer man that is popularly considered, and a terrific baseball mind. His number, retired by the Cardinals, will be on the wall of Busch Stadium until the end of time. But I'm not sure the game, as it is right now, misses him.
The game itself isn't constructed right now in a way that has much room for La Russas of the world. Baseball doesn't value dictatorial managers these days. Managers aren't the captains of the ship anymore; they're middle managers, almost bureaucratic, carrying out the orders of increasingly powerful (and wonky) front offices, mostly there to keep a pleasant clubhouse atmosphere, not destroy any young pitchers' arms and serve as the team's public representative, answering media questions and doing local car dealer ads. (Apparently you don't even need to know basic rules and strategy.)
In the NFL and the NBA, you can legitimately outcoach the opponent and gain a decisive advantage; in baseball, it's not so easy, and oftentimes you're just pulling strings for no reason other than to slow the game down and make yourself look busy. It's just a different game today, and the mind games that were La Russa's forte, the grinding, win-at-any-cost, play-the-game-the-right-way, play-a-hard-nine gritty/gutty/spunky/feisty Joe-McEwing-ism aren't just valued less these days, they're often laughed at. (This tradition is mostly being carried on by Kirk Gibson, the San Francisco Giants' front office and every person who talks to me about baseball on television.) It's a league of wonks, and it's worth noting that two of the people who La Russa famously clashed with as manager of the Cardinals (general manager John Mozeliak and director of scouting Jeff Luhnow) are currently two of the most powerful, emulated people in the game. The La Russa style just isn't in vogue now.
It's not like La Russa's influence is gone or anything. Quite the opposite, of course: The specialization of relief pitchers, the obsession with every little detail (typically more from the front office than the dugout now, but still), the unconventional work on the margins by innovative managers looking for every tiny edge. (Temperamentally, Joe Maddon might seem the opposite of La Russa, but everything we compliment Maddon for now is what we were lauding about La Russa in the late '80s.) But it's now all on the margins: The real work is being done by the scouting, player development and advanced analytics departments, not by the managers. That Mike Scioscia is currently in danger in Anaheim is telling; Scioscia was the only manager, save maybe Jim Leyland, whose power could rival La Russa's, but it has inevitably eroded. We don't want the managers to have the power. The game doesn't quite work right that way anymore.
And La Russa, as much as anything other than winning, was about power. I don't think I'd want La Russa to be a middle manager any more than he would. La Russa was Bobby Knight and Bill Parcells and Coach K in a sport that has no room for anyone like that anymore. That's just not the model now. The Cardinals' manager now is Mike Matheny, a man who has certain strategic deficiencies (insistence on rigid bullpen roles, a fatal attraction to the sacrifice bunt) but is clearly adored by his players, respected by fans and media and projects an air of authority and calm. Heck, he even smiles occasionally. Is Matheny a better manager than La Russa? Probably not. But he's more apt for a franchise that's focusing on youth and, more important, on the front office being in control of all personnel matters. Matheny is a front man, and I think he might be a terrific one. (He's certainly getting results.) Tony La Russa could never be a front man.
I'm hesitant to give too much to the La Russa detractors here: He not only won two titles for the Cardinals, he changed the whole culture of an organization that had been reeling since Whitey Herzog had left. La Russa's imprint on the Cardinals is still obvious every day, from Yadier Molina, to Matt Carpenter moving to second base, to Chris Carpenter, who might be the living embodiment of the LaRussian ethos. He's one of the best managers in baseball history and deserves every plaudit he's ever received. I just don't think baseball is a game for great managers anymore; they're important, but not vital. La Russa demanded that he be vital. La Russa has said repeatedly since his retirement that he has no interest in coming back to the diamond. Looking at the landscape, it's difficult not to see why. I hope he stays away too, for his sake, and for the game's. There's no room in baseball for someone as big as Tony La Russa anymore. This is to the game's detriment, and its benefit.
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