Filed under: Baseball | Tags: baseball, St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa retired today. He decided to leave baseball on a high note, stepping down as the manager of the Cardinals after leading the team on a thrilling, improbable streak to a world championship.
This move leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings. Sometimes I like La Russa. Sometimes I hate him. Even when he’s winning, he can be infuriating. Even when he’s losing, he can be fascinating. No other manager sticks Skip Schumaker at second base, then leaves him there even after he’s proven he can’t play the position. But, then again, no other manager is willing to try batting the pitcher eighth. I still think that’s a good idea.
No matter how I feel about La Russa at the moment, there is no denying that he shaped the face of the St. Louis Cardinals. For better and for worse.
He took over as manager in 1996. That was back when Bill Clinton was campaigning for a second term, the Macarena was a hit song, and Hailee Steinfeld–the actress who played Mattie in 2010′s “True Grit”–wasn’t even born.
La Russa took the team from the fading embers of the contact-and-speed Ozzie Smith era to the electrifying tape-measure Mark McGwire era. It wasn’t a graceful transition, and ended up alienating Smith as well as a legion of Cardinals fans. There are still those who, to this day, yearn for the slaps and steals of Whiteyball.
La Russa guided the team through the days of the MV3: Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen. But he also broke up the band. His bizarre feud with Scott Rolen cast a dark shadow over what should have been a pleasant run at a title repeat in 2007.
The next few years were rough, but La Russa remained as the Cardinals built a new sort of team. Pujols remained, but instead of being surrounded with elite hitters, he was paired with a couple of aces. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright were not always healthy at the same time. But when they were, they made the Cardinals a team to be feared.
And now the Pujols years may be coming to an end. It’s too soon to be sure, but there’s a fair chance that next season is an entirely new beginning. If so, Tony La Russa took us all the way from the end of Whiteyball to the end of the Pujolsball. That’s sixteen years.
It’s almost impossible to judge the skill of a manager. There are too many factors. If we want to be traditional–look to wins, postseason appearances, and titles–La Russa may be the best manager the Cardinals have ever had. In his sixteen years, the Cardinals made the postseason nine times. They went to three World Series. They won two of them. Only a Yankees fan could find those results unacceptable.
Of course, La Russa was gifted with incredibly talented players during his time with the Cardinals. Lankford, McGwire, Drew, Edmonds, Pujols, Kile, Rolen, Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday, Berkman… Just to name the standouts. La Russa also had the benefit of the best pitching coach in baseball. I’m not sure Dave Duncan isn’t the one really responsible for La Russa’s success in St. Louis. There is no one like him and I suspect he will be missed even more than Tony in 2012.
Considering the folks surrounding La Russa, it’s damn near impossible to give him full credit for everything he did for the Cardinals. But he shouldn’t be overlooked. Chances are, La Russa had a finger in acquiring many of the players I listed above. He was more than just a manager. He exerted control over the team far beyond the confines of the dugout.
That was part of the reason Walt Jocketty–another talented person who lent his skill to La Russa’s legacy–left in 2007. The Cardinals weren’t his team. They were Tony’s team. And they were handed over to John Mozeliak. Outside of the surprising Chris Duncan trade, Mozeliak has largely been seen as an apparatus of La Russa’s influence.
When La Russa wanted Matt Holliday, Mozeliak got Matt Holliday. When La Russa wanted Brendan Ryan gone, Brendan Ryan was gone. After Tony expressed a desire to improve the “character” of the clubhouse, Mozeliak brought in Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, and Nick Punto. When Colby Rasmus wore out his welcome, he was shipped off for veteran pitching depth.
Things are going to change now. Tony La Russa is no longer in charge. What does that mean? Is that good? Is it bad? I don’t have the answer for that. When you look at the decisions La Russa made–and the fact that he was being paid millions to make them–it’s hard not to think the team is better off without him. But when you look at his tenure in St. Louis–the years between 1996 and today– it was, overall, an amazing time to be a Cardinals fan.
I often disagreed with Tony La Russa. I often hated his decisions. I often wanted him gone. But the Tony La Russa era was far more than the sum of its parts. It’s very possible that I will never see a more prosperous stretch of Cardinal baseball.
So I want to thank Tony La Russa for the last sixteen years. I don’t know if he’s responsible for any of it. But I also don’t know if that matters anymore.
Filed under: Baseball | Tags: Allen Craig, baseball, marc rzepczynski, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Tony La Russa, World Series
I wish that I could convince myself that what I am about to write is simply hyperbole. I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be this reactionary and short-sighted. But it’s impossible. I can’t stop thinking it. Tonight may have been the worst-managed baseball game I’ve ever watched. Feel free to correct me. Tell me about a game that was managed worse. It would make me feel better.
Tonight I watched the St. Louis Cardinals make a series of awful decisions that cost them the lead in the World Series. And it sucked.
Earlier this evening, I made a very quick post about Mike Napoli’s stats versus righthanded and lefthanded pitchers. It was brief, and I only made it because I couldn’t fit my point into a single tweet. Basically, Napoli’s had a strong platoon split for his entire career. He hits righthanders fine, but he crushes lefties. This season especially, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball against lefthanded pitching. Leaving in noted lefty Marc Rzepczynski to face Napoli with the bases loaded was painfully foolish. It’s reminiscent of allowing Lohse to face Howard in game 1 against the Phillies. La Russa loves matchups, and he’s been manipulating them like crazy throughout the playoffs. Here, he sat in the dugout and watched as a mediocre lefty faced a batter who eats lefties for breakfast. The result was predictable. 4-2 Rangers.
If only that was all we saw tonight. Instead, we also witnessed Ryan Theriot pinch-bunt. Bunting isn’t a great move in general. There are few situations where it improves the chances of scoring a run. Most of those situations involve a pitcher at the plate. There’s no reason to insert a player into the lineup specifically to bunt. That’s insane. I thought about citing statistics to prove how insane that is. I don’t think that’s necessary. The insanity is self-evident. And I wish it was the most insane thing we saw.
No, the most insane move of the night was bringing Lance Lynn into the game to intentionally walk Ian Kinsler. This was the calling card of the catastrophe. It was how we all know that something was truly wrong. There’s no explaining it. Bringing in a pitcher, issuing an intentional walk, then pulling that pitcher should never happen. Never. I can contrive an elaborate situation to justify almost any managerial move–even the pinch bunt. Not this one. Clearly, the Cardinals management was lost in one of the most important games of the year.
Then to top it all off, in the top of the ninth the Cardinals send Allen Craig while Pujols (who can hit the ball a long way) is batting and Neftali Feliz (who can barely find the strike zone) is pitching. It wasn’t just predictable that Albert would swing at a ball out of the zone and Craig, slow as his tortoise, would be thrown out at 2b. It was damn near fated. Craig can’t run. Feliz is probably one of half a dozen pitchers in baseball that Pujols can’t be trusted to make contact with. Why? Why hit and run there? Craig crossing the plate doesn’t win the game for the Cards. It doesn’t even tie the game. The only reason to hit and run is to prevent the double play. DPs have been a problem for the Cards, but consider this:
Albert Pujols has struck out 704 times in his career. He’s only hit into 232 double plays. That’s actually a lot of double plays and not that many strikeouts. But the K is STILL far more likely than the GIDP.
Neftali Feliz has struck out 164 batters in his career. He’s allowed 150 ground balls. That’s right, Feliz is more likely to strike out a hitter than allow him to make contact and produce a ground ball.
There’s no reason to just expect a DP. There’s no reason AT ALL to hit and run.
After the game, the excuses came fast and furious. There was something wrong with the bullpen phone. Albert himself put on the hit-and-run. The speed at which this team covers for Tony La Russa is phenomenal. If Allen Craig could run as fast as the Cards spin their failures, the team would be coming home up 3-2.
I really don’t know what else to say about what we saw in game 5. It was atrocious. It was like watching a car accident, except car accidents are usually over much quicker.
One week ago, the entirety of sports media was fawning over La Russa’s brilliance. I wonder how many of those same writers dare question him after tonight?