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La Russa always had edge, and kept all on edge of their seats


Bill DeWitt said the Cardinals are not going to find another Tony La Russa.

Neither are we.

The Cardinals owner is looking for his next manager. We're looking back at a legend.

"He's probably the best of all time," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Monday morning, after La Russa surprised the baseball world by announcing his retirement.

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He probably is.

I probably shouldn't say that. I never saw John McGraw manage. I never saw Connie Mack.

But we've all seen La Russa.

We screamed at the endless pitching changes, but we knew he was always one step ahead of the guy in the other dugout (and maybe two or three steps ahead of us). We laughed (or growled) at all the distractions he created, but we also knew every one of them was intentional, designed to give his team an edge.

There were inconsistencies (the pitcher often batted eighth, but never in a postseason game), but there were reasons. Some he told us, some he didn't.

There was also consistency.

You always knew a La Russa team would be prepared. You always knew a La Russa team would play hard.

And you always knew better than to count a La Russa team out.

La Russa said Monday he didn't retire because his team won the World Series. He, DeWitt and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said La Russa made his decision sometime in late August, at a time when the Cardinals seemed to be done and buried (but also around the time La Russa told commissioner Bud Selig, "We're not done").

La Russa said Monday the record in August had nothing to do with his decision, and that winning or losing the World Series was never going to change his mind, either.

"I knew if I came back, I'd be coming back for the wrong reasons," he said.

He knew he had to be fully committed to the job, because that's how he made it through 33 years, 5,097 regular-season games, 2,728 wins and three World Series titles.

As his long-time first base coach, Dave McKay, said in May: "He treats this organization like it's his. The guy's tireless. He treats it like he owns it."

Leyland first got to know La Russa in 1979, managing against him in the Triple-A American Association.

"His biggest asset, from the first day, was that he had no fear," Leyland said. "He didn't care if he had to answer to something in the press. He always did what he had to do."

La Russa was close with other great managers and coaches, and not just in baseball. Bobby Knight and Bill Belichick would visit him in spring training.

He and Sparky Anderson became good friends. La Russa and Tom Kelly also became close, and La Russa and Leyland are so tight that La Russa said he was "a wreck" watching and pulling for Leyland's Tigers during this year's playoffs.

The relationships mattered to La Russa, but they also served a purpose. La Russa was always learning, and he was always asking questions.

For writers, he wasn't always the easiest manager to cover, but he was easily one of the most fascinating.

There was always a little mystery, but he liked it that way. He didn't want us to know everything. He didn't want his players to know everything.

He was known at times as a players' manager, and there was no doubt that he allowed stars like Albert Pujols (and Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco in Oakland) plenty of leeway. But one La Russa coach said that La Russa never really wanted the players to fully understand him, either.

He always wanted them to be slightly on edge.

Not every player could deal with it. Through the years, the Cardinals have traded away players who didn't mesh with La Russa, from Scott Rolen a few years back to Colby Rasmus this summer.

It's probably La Russa's biggest fault (although his consistent defense of steroid users will bother some people more). Bobby Cox was liked by basically everyone who played for him. Same with Leyland.

But the players who stayed with La Russa (and they were the great majority) showed their loyalty on the field and off. They listened, and it showed.

It showed this year more than ever, from the way the Cardinals overcame the spring training loss of Adam Wainwright, to the way they overcame the 10½-game deficit in the final month of the season, to the way they got past the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers to win the World Series.

In Game 5 last week, La Russa and the Cardinals had a lapse that I still can't believe, and still don't understand. The master of the bullpen somehow ended up with left-hander Marc Rzepczynski pitching to right-handed hitting Mike Napoli with the game on the line.

La Russa blamed crowd noise and miscommunication with the bullpen. I'm convinced that we still don't know the full story.

Once the Cardinals won Games 6 and 7, the mixup became a footnote, and I'm glad it did.

If we take La Russa at his word, he was retiring after the World Series, win or lose. It wouldn't have been right for a career this good to end with a moment that bad.

Better that it ends like this, with La Russa going out on top.

He didn't need this World Series to seal his legacy. He had won two already, joining Anderson as the only managers ever to win with a team in each league.

He won more games than anyone but McGraw (who won his last World Series before the Yankees won their first) and Mack (who lost more games than he won, and stayed on so long because he owned the team).

He's the winningest modern-era manager, the best modern-era manager.

And the best of all time?

I'll go ahead and agree with Leyland.

He probably is.


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