Throughout the St. Louis Cardinals’ remarkable march to the World Series title this fall, people close to Manager Tony La Russa were both surprised and amused at how calm and inner-peaceful he seemed. He was still as intense as ever in the dugout, and as maniacal as ever with his bullpen moves, but off the field he would crack jokes. Sometimes, he would actually smile.
The consensus opinion was that La Russa had long ago decided to come back for a 17th season with the Cardinals in 2012, and that the knowledge of this — without the protracted uncertainty of his last contract — was the reason for his odd serenity this postseason. It turns out the exact opposite was true.
On Monday, La Russa, 67, announced he was retiring as Cardinals manager — a decision he said he made in August. Now, his October calm makes even more sense: He knew all along this was the end.
The decision apparently was reached around the time Cardinals were at their season-low point — they were as many as 10 ½ games out of a playoff spot in late August — and was revealed at a time when La Russa was at the height of his profession, three days after he led the Cardinals to an improbable World Series title. This was the ultimate going-out-on-top move, although La Russa said the timing of both the decision and the announcement was coincidental.
A few points, some obvious, some not, about La Russa’s departure:
*His legacy is secure. Thirty-three years as a manager, 2,728 victories (third all-time), three World Series titles. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame soon. But his impact on the game goes well beyond the victories and titles. He was an innovator — essentially inventing the matchup bullpen.
*He will be incredibly difficult to replace. Perhaps more so than any other team, the Cardinals were molded in their manager’s likeness. The Cardinals took their personality from La Russa — the intensity, the passion, the us-against-the-world mentality, the my-way-or-the-highway rigidness. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find someone who brings those same traits — and the Cardinals would be wise not to try to find a La Russa clone — so there will be an inevitable culture shock when someone else takes over.
*He was great to write about. Very few people were neutral when it came to La Russa — they either loved him or hated him. He was either a dugout genius who ran a game better than anyone else in baseball, or he was an arrogant tyrant who would go to any lengths to gain an advantage, however tiny. He was either a fierce loyalist when it came to his own players, or a blatant enabler. In all honesty, all of those characterizations were true. No baseball journalist sets out to write about the manager all postseason long, but in La Russa’s case it was unavoidable: On any given night, he was the story.
*His retirement could have an effect on Albert Pujols’s decision. La Russa’s stepping down won’t necessarily send Pujols running from St. Louis. But there was an undeniable bond between them, and that bond was part of the larger bond that connected Pujols to the Cardinals and the city of St. Louis. Without La Russa, the bond is weakened, if only a little. Pujols’s decision to stay or leave will still come down to two unknowable (at this point) factors: How much money will be offered from various suitors, and what is in Pujols’s heart. But it certainly seems possible that the departure of La Russa will cut straight to the slugger’s heart. And if you are a true alarmist, you might wonder: Is it possible La Russa made this decision because he knew, or at least sensed, that Pujols would walk away?