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TONY LA RUSSA: ONE CARDINAL THAT CHOSE NOT TO COME BACK

BY LUIGUI BARRAGAN

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I too, like former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, was stunned when I read the news that Tony La Russa had retired from managing in Major League Baseball after 33 seasons.  But I can’t blame him.  We should all be so lucky that we get to call it quits while at the pinnacle of our profession.  In that sense, Tony made another shrewd move in a post-season full of them.  And to Tony’s credit, there was no “miscommunication,” no bad connection between his heart and his head.  “I think this just feels like it’s time to end it,” La Russa said.  “When I look in the mirror, I know I’d come back for the wrong reasons, and I didn’t want to do that.”

His intentions were clear.  He said they had been since late August when he told the St. Louis Cardinal organization that he’d be retiring after the season.  Perhaps it was the settling of that major issue that cleared his mind, and allowed him to focus on the task at hand: saving the Cardinals’ 2011 campaign. On August 23rd of this year, the Cardinals record read: 67 wins and 62 losses.  They were in second place in the National League Central Division, 10 games back of the first place Milwaukee Brewers, and 10 and-a-half games back of the Atlanta Braves in the race for the National League Wild Card.  Their playoff hopes were fading fast with only 33 games left to play in the regular season. What La Russa was able to do in those last 33 games, will forever cement his legacy as a major league manager of 33 years.   The Cards won 23 of their last 33 games, and on the final day of the regular season snatched the National League Wild Card playoff spot from the hands of the Atlanta Braves.  Once in the playoffs, La Russa and his resilient Redbirds kept right on winning.  The eleven playoff victories that followed were enough to give St. Louis its eleventh World Series title in franchise history.  For La Russa it would be the third time in his illustrious career that he would be crowned a World Series champion.  In Major League Baseball history, La Russa ranks third all-time with 2, 728 victories as a manager.  Only Connie Mack (3, 731) and John McGraw (2, 763)  have more.  “I’m aware of the history of the game,” La Russa said.  “But I would not be happy with myself if the reason I came back was to move up one spot.  That isn’t  why you manage.”

For those of us who have never managed a Major League ball club before, the improbable run to a championship by these “Comeback Cards” of 2011 would be reason enough to want to grab a bag of sunflower seeds and take a seat on the bench as the manager of the team. But not even the winning could make Tony La Russa change his mind about retiring at the end of the year.  “I think the best part about it,” La Russa said, “if we struggled, if we won, if we got close, if we ended up going to the post season, at no time did I feel differently [about his decision to retire].  I just felt much better because it’s more fun to compete and win.”  In other words, he felt no pressure.  No pressure to prove anything to himself, or anyone else for that matter, before calling it quits.  Certainly he felt no pressure to go out on top.  But the absence of pressure didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t want to win.  Just go back and re-read the last part of his statement.  The lack of pressure and the sense of freedom brought on by his decision to retire made it “more fun to compete and win.”  The desire to win was still a part of La Russa’s message ’til the end.  A message that his team never turned a deaf ear to and took very much to heart.

And at no time was the beating of that heart more palpable than in the bottom of the ninth, tenth and eleventh innings of Game Six of the 2011 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. Twice the Cardinals extended their season in that game when Texas was but one strike away from becoming World Series Champions for the first time in their team’s history.  Trailing 7-to-5 in the bottom of the ninth, with two men on base, and two men out, St. Louis native David Freese produced a bases-clearing, opposite field triple that tied the game at seven and breathed new life into Busch Stadium.  The Rangers responded quickly and forcefully in their half of the tenth inning.  Center fielder Josh Hamilton crushed a Texas-sized, two-run home run, with one out, to put the Rangers back up by the score of 9-to-7.  Hearts sunk once again in St. Louis.  And although a pulse became harder and harder to detect, if there was one thing we learned during the last week of August and all throughout the months of September and October was that you couldn’t pronounce the Cardinals dead until the final out was recorded.  With two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning, and trailing 9-to-8, Dr. Lance Berkman was paged to the plate to try and save the season.  And on a two-strike, two-ball count, Dr. Berkman successfully electro-shocked his team, and the city of St. Louis, back to life with a hit to centerfield that scored  Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay and tied the ball game at nine runs apiece.  Twice the protective, clear plastic tarp was put up in the visitor’s locker room and twice they put out the champagne in anticipation of a Rangers championship celebration.  Twice they were forced to put it all away.  And in the bottom of the eleventh inning, for the second time in as many frames, David Freese put the hopes and dreams of the first ever World Series title in Texas Rangers history on ice.  This time Mr. Freese led off the inning.  With the bases empty and the count full, Freese took the pitch from Ranger reliever Mark Lowe high and deep to center field for the solo home run that gave the Cardinals the 10-to-9 victory, and sent the 2011 World Series into a winner-take-all Game 7.

Tony La Russa knew the type of heart that beat inside the chest of his team.  He knew that the character of his team would be to never give up and to fight until the very end.  Game six will forever be remembered as an epic demonstration of that refuse to lose attitude that characterized the St. Louis Cardinals of 2011.  In fact, at the lowest points of the season, the team’s mantra became to play each game like it’s the last game, relentless to the end.  Well, the end was finally here.  On Friday night, October 28, 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have to pretend anymore.  This was the last game of the season: win or lose.  Under those circumstances, and with a World Series championship on the line, there was no doubt, at least not in the mind of St. Louis Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan,  that Chris Carpenter would be the Cardinals starting pitcher in Game 7.  Carpenter, even on short rest, gave the Cards their best chance to win the team’s eleventh World Series title overall.  La Russa agreed and turned his attention to another pressing matter that he knew, if left unchecked, could de-rail the Cards’ quest for the title : a possible breakdown in concentration, after being involved in and winning one of the greatest games in World Series history.  Along with team veterans, La Russa’s admonition to his group before Game 7 was to “put game six in a box and put it away.”  “This is a dead-even competition,” La Russa said.   “And you cannot, you cannot be distracted by last night.” The way La Russa sees it, the slightest distraction makes you less competitive.  “You can’t think about last night, playing this game today,” assured La Russa.  “We won’t be as good.”  And against the American League Champion Texas Rangers, in what was essentially a one game playoff in Game 7, you need to be at your best.

Texas stormed out of the gate early in Game 7, scoring two first inning runs off of the Cardinals’ ace, on three hits.  The Rangers looked as if they had successfully put their loss in game six behind them, and now enjoyed an early two-to-nothing lead in the decisive game of the World Series. But two-run leads by opposing teams no longer scared this Cardinal ball club.  Picking-up right where he left off the night before, St Louis third baseman, and eventual World Series MVP, David Freese victimized the Rangers once again by doubling to left, centerfield, scoring both first baseman Albert Pujols and right fielder Lance Berkman. Pujols and Berkman were walked by Rangers’ starter Matt Harrison with two outs in the home half of the first inning.  And just like that, the two-run Ranger lead evaporated.  No other Texas Ranger would cross home plate for the remainder of this game; Chris Carpenter made sure of that.  The Cardinal hitters, on the other hand, showed great plate discipline and patience in this game.  In the bottom half of the third inning,  Allen Craig’s solo home run gave the Redbirds a lead at 3-to-2 that they never surrendered.  In the bottom of the 5th, St. Louis added two more runs without even hitting the ball out of the infield (with the bases loaded, a walk to catcher Yadier Molina scored Allen Craig from third base and when shortstop Rafael Furcal was hit by a pitch, in came Albert Pujols to make the score 5-to-2 in favor of St. Louis).  Game 7 of the 2011 World Series ended with the hometown Cardinals scoring six unanswered runs, en route to the title.  “I don’t think anybody outside of our clubhouse gave us a chance then [at the beginning of the playoffs],” St. Louis Cardinals infielder Nick Punto said.  ” To be honest, there were probably people in our clubhouse who didn’t give us much of a chance.  But we never quit on ourselves.  This is the reward.”  Congratulations Tony.  Your reward is going out on top, a World Series champion.  We should all be so fortunate.

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