National Columnist

Screw-ups -- not titles -- could be La Russa's legacy


Tony La Russa (right) talks with Yadier Molina after the eighth-inning bullpen mixup. (US Presswire)  
Tony La Russa (right) talks with Yadier Molina after the eighth-inning bullpen mixup. (US Presswire)  

ST. LOUIS -- Not that the St. Louis Cardinals need any extra pressure -- two games left in the 2011 World Series, needing to win both -- but there's this:

The Cardinals need to win this World Series for manager Tony La Russa.

That's where we are. There's where La Russa's legacy is. He needs this World Series, or his legacy is screwed. Nobody will be able to take away his World Series titles from 1989 and 2006, but nobody will have to. Because nobody will remember them.

Unless the Cardinals rally past the Rangers to win this World Series, the first two lines on La Russa's managerial tombstone won't be from his victories 1989 and 2006. The first two lines will be from his losses 1990 and 2011.

And that's a fact.

That's a cold fact, a mean fact -- an unfair fact. But a fact nonetheless. The rule of history goes like this: Big successes are remembered. Big failures? They're remembered more. Colossal, unexplainable failures? We remember them most of all.

And La Russa, who already has one colossal, unexplainable failure on his resume, offered up another one Monday night. That phone thing from Game 5, that colossal -- unexplainable -- screw-up that punctuated what had to be the worst-managed game of his Hall of Fame career. Oh, La Russa will get into the Hall of Fame no matter what. I'm not saying he won't. First ballot, he's in there.

But when he goes in, we'll remember La Russa's mighty Oakland A's from 1990, a team with Hall of Fame talent up and down the lineup, two 20-game winners in the rotation and the absolutely unhittable Dennis Eckersley (0.61 ERA, just 41 hits and four walks in 73 1/3 innings) at closer. But we won't remember that team's 103 wins, or its 4-0 sweep of Boston in the American League Championship Series. We'll remember its colossal, unexplainable sweep at the hands of the underdog Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series. That's one of the first two things we'll remember about Tony La Russa.

And we'll remember that phone thing from Game 5. We'll remember it either way, of course, but if the Cardinals win the World Series it'll just be a silly footnote -- not a colossal failure -- on the ledger of La Russa. If they lose? It's not a footnote. It's a headline. Maybe even the biggest headline over his entire career, because it's like La Russa told Scott Miller on Tuesday: "That's got to be one of the weirdest things in major-league history."

He's right, since timing is everything. If it happens in June, it's humorous. But if it happens in October, in the second half of a World Series that is as tied as tied can be -- two wins each after four games, two runs each in the eighth inning of Game 5 -- it's historic. So historic, it can change a man's legacy.

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Baseball's funny like that. For such a plodding game, things can change so fast. One night, Albert Pujols is the biggest offensive star in World Series history. Two nights later he's an oaf, the guy who called for a curious hit-and-run from the batter's box and then didn't even swing. Left unprotected by the batter, Allen Craig was thrown out easily at second. Pujols was then walked intentionally, as he would've been had Craig managed to steal the bag anyway. All in all, a curious decision by Pujols, the kind of thing that goes down in baseball lore when it happens in October.

Only, the Pujols thing is being mostly ignored. Why? Because the La Russa thing -- the phone thing -- was, as La Russa said, "one of the weirdest things in major-league history."

And I'm here to say I don't even think it was La Russa's fault. He has shouldered the blame admirably, insisting he's the one who screwed up that eighth inning, and he has continued to show the humility and honesty that I found so charming just last week. La Russa didn't merely talk about it after the game from his MLB-mandated press conference; he voluntarily spoke about it some more with a handful of reporters after the press conference, then spoke about it again on Tuesday, going so far as to call the whole thing "my house of horrors" and to admit, "Geez, that was embarrassing."

But I don't think La Russa made the screw-up. I think it was his pitching coach (and best friend), Dave Duncan. La Russa slipped the other day when asked if he was the one on the phone with the bullpen when the wrong pitcher was warming up (twice). La Russa said, "Sometimes Dunc calls, but ... I think I called."

You think?

Nonsense. Duncan made that call, not La Russa, but La Russa doesn't want to come out and say it. Either way, though, it doesn't matter. If the Cardinals lose this World Series, the turning point will be remembered as the eighth inning of Game 5, when the Cardinals had the wrong guy (a left-hander, any left-hander) pitching to Mike Napoli, who destroys lefties. And that's fair. If the Rangers win the 2011 World Series, the eighth inning of Game 5 should be remembered as the key moment.

Not sure it's fair that the eighth inning of Game 5 will be remembered as the key moment in La Russa's career. But I'm positive that's what will happen.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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