JUPITER, Fla. -- A bright sun is shining, a warm breeze is blowing and another gorgeous Florida day is rounding first and moving into scoring position. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa is talking to a handful of reporters as his team stretches to begin another day, the genius at work laying out small parts of his grand plans for another season.
Best news of all might be that there's no fungo bat in his hands, so nobody is going to have to duck.
|Tony La Russa is the one constant for the Cards. (AP)|
Yet in the midst of this red sea change, the most notable aspect in these early days of camp is in who's returning. Specifically, that La Russa himself, last seen alternately guiding the Cards through one hellaciously tumultuous season while also adding to it, is back in the pilot's seat.
"I talked to him off and on all offseason, and for awhile, I didn't really know if he was coming back, to tell you the truth," Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen says. "When I heard that Walt was not coming back, I wasn't sure if Tony was.
"I'm relieved. He's done a great job, and I didn't want to start all over."
La Russa is coming off perhaps the most trying season of his career, a campaign in which the Cardinals absorbed, in his words, "body blow after body blow."
Much of it was stuff thrust upon the Cardinals. A non-stop parade to the trainers' room that included ace Carpenter's season-ending injury. Several other notable health issues, some the usual and some bizarre, like outfielder Juan Encarnacion suffering multiple fractures to his left eye socket when nailed by a foul ball while standing in the on-deck circle. And most tragically, reliever Josh Hancock's sudden death in a traffic accident.
But no small part of the drama of '07 was brought on by La Russa himself. His humiliating DUI arrest here during camp last March, a moment after which the 63-year-old manager was turned into an unwitting -- and unwilling -- Youtube star thanks to police dashboard video.
He embroiled himself in a bitter -- and unnecessary -- fight with the local newspaper when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch greeted the arrival of the Chicago Cubs for an April series with a parody of the old Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance to poem. Like nobody's ever made fun of the Cubs before. And like the Cubs would have been too stupid to figure out on their own that the Cardinals didn't have anything to do with it.
By the time he threatened to use his fungo bat on any reporter asking a question he deemed "insincere" following the death of Hancock a few weeks later -- a threat for which he should have been disciplined by baseball -- it was clear that La Russa was perilously close to joining the lunatic fringe.
The Cardinals stumbled to a third-place finish in the NL Central (78-84) during the encore season to their '06 World Series title. It wasn't until the latter part of October, a couple of weeks after Jocketty had been fired, that La Russa signed a new two-year deal.
Mozeliak, the new GM, said he got the impression that La Russa wanted to manage again but, as the delicate situation played out, he wondered whether it would be with the Cardinals or elsewhere.
"I thought toward the end of the season that I was ready to try it again," La Russa says. "I definitely wanted to wait until a few days had passed without the responsibility of being involved in games where you're thinking that's your priority.
"It took a few days before it became clear that I still wanted to do it. The question was, where? Firing Walt raised issues. Maybe it was time to change the whole management team."
The deal was done after it became clear the Cardinals wanted him back.
"I felt Tony was ready to put last year behind him," Mozeliak says. "He's in a great frame of mind this spring, and the dialogue has been extremely positive.
"I know he's excited. The enthusiasm is great."
It's clear from listening to him that La Russa is confident that these Cardinals are going to be better than many think. He is enjoying the fact that they come into camp almost as an afterthought in the NL Central.
Maybe he's just still giddy that he ran his nemesis, third baseman Scott Rolen, not only out of town, but clear out of the country to Toronto.
Thing is, right now, it's easy to be chipper when there are no significant injuries, no DUI catastrophes and the only adversity is whether the tee times are taken for the afternoon.
But for his own health and prosperity, and for that of his organization, this ultra-hot-wired Hall of Fame manager needs to find a way to stop himself from becoming his own worst enemy.
"No coaching staff goes through a season in which you don't expect some adversity and issues," La Russa says. "But at a certain level, it goes beyond unfair.
"Stuff you hesitate to even talk about because people perceive it as you're making excuses."
That's all true. But, as I told La Russa during our conversation, you also brought no small part of it on yourself.
Waging war on the local newspaper, he says, he would do again.
"We could have been in first place, 15 games up," he says. "That, I thought, was a low blow, a cheap shot. It's how I was taught to survive in this league. Trust your gut. I wanted to make sure the Cubs knew that the Cardinals organization was not co-signing on that kind of nonsense."
Regarding another incident ...
"The fungo bat," La Russa says, admitting he regrets the incident but offering a qualification within that thought. "I completely understand (my) emotions, though, because it was similar to what happened with the Mitchell Report this winter and people jumping to conclusions with Albert (Pujols, when initial reports had him being named as a user of performance-enhancing drugs in the report. He wasn't.).
"Immediately after a very tragic moment, I was being confronted by media that said they had verifiable information that three players were with Josh (the night of the accident). It turned out it wasn't true."
La Russa always has had -- and nurtured within his clubhouse -- an us-against-the-world mentality. Obviously, with 2,375 career wins -- third on baseball's all-time list behind Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) -- it's been highly effective.
At certain key times, though, such as in some of the postseason series his clubs have dropped, I've thought it's worked to the detriment of his teams because they've played uptight.
Mozeliak visibly winces when the words "fungo" and "bat" are mentioned.
"My response is, we are looking at the events of last year and we're going to learn from them and move on from them," he says. "And ultimately, we're going to grow from them."
It would be a difficult enough topic -- at what point do you rein La Russa in? -- if Mozeliak were a veteran GM. But coming in as a rookie boss and standing next to La Russa's towering Hall of Fame resume, well ... there are precious few people in the game, period, who are going to tell La Russa what to do, or even suggest how he should behave.
"It's come up in a variety of ways," Mozeliak says. "Specifically, I've never addressed it one-on-one. It's come up in a group."
At times in 2007, La Russa appeared hell-bent toward self-destruction, like the legendary college football coach Woody Hayes or the Hall of Fame college basketball coach Bobby Knight, who is a good friend of La Russa's and often visits the manager here in Jupiter.
"I shouldn't have used the fungo bat (as a threat) in that incident," La Russa acknowledges when I ask if he's worried about going off the deep end one day like Hayes. "But there's a concern when something comes out sensational and then, when it's inaccurate, it's said very quietly.
"It's not right. It's very dangerous."
For now, on a warm and mostly carefree spring day in Florida, the skipper is nowhere near the cliff. He smiles. He chats. He jokes. He says he doesn't necessarily agree with some of the players who think he seems a little more excited this spring than in the past.
"I think I'm as excited," he says. "A couple of times, if spring seems to get here quickly and you're not ready, you have to prompt yourself.
"There wasn't a need this year to have that talk with yourself. I was excited to get down here and create an environment in which the guys could develop into a competitive ballclub.
"I'm excited in a different way. I'm excited because we have some young guys who will be playing for their baseball lives."
Preferably, this year, without all of those extra body blows.
Both those that are inflicted upon the Cardinals ... and those that are self-inflicted.