By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006
ST. LOUIS, Oct. 28 -- When Tony La Russa accepted the job as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in the winter following the 1995 season, he asked to be able to select his own uniform number, and when the wish was granted, he chose No. 10. It was a message to himself, sent La Russa-style -- as subtle as a sledgehammer. The franchise had won nine World Series. The next one, the one that became La Russa's obsession, would be number 10.
It would be 11 long seasons before number 10 was secured, and when it was, following the Cardinals' clinching 4-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Friday night in Game 5 of the World Series, La Russa plunged into the moment with abandon, his practiced coolness, like the sunglasses that hide his eyes even during night games, suddenly vanished.
"I'm having a hard time holding it together," he told reporters on the Busch Stadium field, minutes after Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright had delivered the 27th out on a three-pitch strikeout.
Of all the legacies that were created and all the truths that emerged out of what transpired over the previous week, and over the baseball postseason as a whole, perhaps the most certain is this: With the Cardinals' stirring win, La Russa quite likely cemented his place in the Hall of Fame.
La Russa joined Sparky Anderson as the only managers in history to win World Series titles in both leagues. Never mind the fact La Russa's American League title came 17 years ago, with the 1989 Oakland Athletics, or that in the intervening years he came to be defined by a series of October failures. With this win, he takes his place among the game's greats.
He may invite scrutiny. He may be controversial. He may be abrasive. But no one can say he isn't good at what he does, not after guiding this flawed team, one that survived 78 regular season losses, countless injuries and a near-historic September collapse, to a most unlikely championship.
"I don't know if it's his best [managing job], but it's definitely been his toughest," Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds said.
But La Russa's Midwestern redemption was not the only story line that emerged over the previous days. In the aftermath of the Cardinals' victory, these notions came into clearer view:
· Baseball is the new Sport of Parity. The Cardinals were the seventh team to win the World Series in the last seven years -- an egalitarian pattern that has never occurred in the NFL, which is often held up as the model of parity.
Baseball's new labor agreement, which retained the game's basic economic structure while tweaking some of the numbers, is an acknowledgment on the part of both the league and the players that the system is working, and that more teams than ever (and thus, more players than ever) have a chance both to make money and win championships.
· Postseason predictions are useless. Twelve teams in baseball had better records than the Cardinals this season, and 11 had a higher payroll. The Cardinals, given almost no chance of beating the Padres or Mets in the first two rounds, were such huge underdogs in the World Series, some in the media jokingly predicted "Tigers in three."
Ha, ha, ha.
· David Eckstein deserves respect. Though his 5-foot-7 stature and his grinder's mentality cause people to think of him as an overachiever, he has now batted leadoff and played shortstop for two different World Series champs (2002 Angels, 2006 Cardinals) and won MVP honors in the latter.
"I think what happens is because he's smaller in physical structure everybody thinks that [he's] this cute little kid [who] doesn't have a lot of talent -- nice kid, plays hard, hustles," Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. "Believe me, there's a lot more to this guy than that. This guy is a very talented baseball player."
· You have to build around a core. The Cardinals did not invent this model, but they perfected it: To build a championship team, you must amass a core of six to eight star players and surround them with a mixture of cheap, young stars-to-be and the right mix of journeymen, castoffs and retreads -- admittedly a difficult thing to do -- with an eye toward players whose makeup might allow them to rise above their natural abilities in October.
"Our advantage," La Russa said, "is that we have kept a real strong core here. So even though you might have half the roster change [each year], you bring those guys into the core, and the core guys are going to tell [the newcomers], 'This is how we play in St. Louis.' "
· These guys will be stars. The World Series, and the postseason as a whole, introduced the greater baseball-watching public to a handful of young players, mostly rookies, who seem destined for stardom.
The Tigers' Justin Verlander, the favorite for AL rookie of the year, is one obvious example, despite losing twice in the World Series, but so are teammates Joel Zumaya, the flame-throwing reliever who could be the game's next dominant closer, and Curtis Granderson, the Tigers' garrulous and talented center fielder.
For the Cardinals, there is Wainwright, the rookie closer, who already handles the media as well as he handles opposing batters. Wainwright, who did not take over full-time closer duties until the final week of the regular season, ended the NLCS with a strikeout of Carlos Beltran on a gorgeous curveball, and ended the World Series by fanning Detroit's Brandon Inge with a wicked slider.
"I'll probably never throw another curve or slider again," Wainwright said Friday night, "without thinking of those two pitches."
· The Tigers were not a fluke. They are a much better team than they showed over the last week. The five gruesome errors by their pitching staff drew the most attention, but they also (with the exception of Kenny Rogers, who may or may not have been aided by an illegal substance) did not pitch to their capabilities.
One number jumps out: Tigers pitchers issued six walks in five games to the Cardinals' No. 2 hitters, ahead of No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols. That's typically a prescription for disaster, and while they did a nice job containing Pujols, it still underscores the Tigers' lack of execution.
· Some people just made themselves a lot of money. Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver, your free agent windows are about to open. Congratulations.