In yesterday’s NY Daily News, Bill Madden wrote about Tony La Russa and the spate of injuries that could derail the Cardinals season before it gets underway. The big guns Adam Wainwright (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Matt Holliday (an appendectomy on Friday) have put the Cardinals in a precarious situation to stay in contention.
Regarding La Russa, Madden wrote the following:
How soon is Tony La Russa going to regret coming back for another season as St. Louis Cardinals manager? Rather than joining Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston in retirement after last season, La Russa opted to sign a one-year extension, in hopes of leading the Cardinals back to the postseason after an extremely disappointing 2010. But a couple of days into spring training, La Russa lost his best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, for the season due to Tommy John surgery and then, Opening Day in St. Louis on Thursday, his worst nightmare was realized as his defensive liability double-play combo, shortstop Ryan Theriot and second baseman Skip Schumaker, both made critical errors and closer Ryan Franklin blew the save in the Cards’ 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. The next day La Russa’s cleanup hitter, Matt Holliday, had an appendectomy and is out indefinitely.
Comparing managers is dicey and has to be done on a conditional basis.
Cox and Torre are three and four years older than La Russa respectively; I don’t get the impression Gaston wanted to retire and would come back if an opportunity presented itself; Piniella, understandably, was burned out after spending 3 1/2 years managing the Cubs.
But La Russa?
What would he do with himself if he wasn’t managing?
He’s a lawyer, but would he want to go back to that now? He has his animal charities to keep him busy I presume, but what else is there?
There are baseball lifers who don’t look right doing anything but wearing a uniform. Don Zimmer is one; Tony La Russa is another.
Would he be able to slide into a cushy job at a law firm as what would amount to a show horse? Make himself a lot of money and relax?
Maybe he’d make as much or more money than he does now as the Cardinals manager if he went on the corporate speaking circuit. But would the legal world and adoration of dinner theater drones provide the rush and high profile to help his charities and keep his ego satiated?
La Russa would go insane if he wasn’t managing; the implication that he might regret coming back would make sense if he was ever teetering on retiring, but he never indicated a “will I or won’t I” type of vacillation that has been a hallmark of football coach Bill Parcells and drove fans, media and owners batty in his latter years.
There wasn’t a great deal of soul-searching involved with La Russa. He’s healthy. This is what he does. He’s still great at it. Why shouldn’t he continue doing it?
As for the idea that he made a mistake and regrets it, how could he have known that he’d lose his ace pitcher to a catastrophic injury before the season started? That Holliday would need an appendectomy?
Just as there’s no way to know that good things—like the emergence of Albert Pujols in 2001—will happen, how can you account for injuries to stars to that degree and choose not to manage at all?
A top-heavy team like the Cardinals has to hope their key players don’t get hurt. They’ve relied on stars—Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright and Chris Carpenter—and filled out the rest of the roster with youngsters and foundlings. La Russa and Dave Duncan are trusted to run the games and put the pieces in place.
Perhaps, in some weird way, La Russa is relishing the challenge of winning under trying circumstances. While it might not be as sweet as it would’ve been 10-15 years ago to outwit his opponents and make the media look foolish—again, he can boost his already ginormous ego by guiding a compromised team into contention when every “expert” had written them off as soon as Wainwright went down.
La Russa is thin-skinned and arrogant, but with all the success he’s had, he has a right to be.
Could it be that he might have to do his best managing job of his career to navigate the minefield of lost stars and win anyway? And that it would further cement his status as one of the best—if not the best—manager ever?
He’d never say it publicly, but perhaps he’s taking this as a challenge.
And you’d be unwise to bet against the baseball savvy of Tony La Russa.
Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.
I published a full excerpt of my book here.