Saturday, October 29, 2011

Contemplating Tony LaRussa

A World Series trophy? For me? 
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series Friday night, winning the most routine game of what had been an intriguingly dramatic series.

This makes three World Series titles for Tony LaRussa, who is increasingly making a case for the title of greatest manager ever.

There's no clear and obvious way to determine such a title, but but he's a serious contender. As I've said before, I don't like his persona, but I can't argue with his results.

One intriguing aspect of his career: He has had, by my reckoning, six teams that could legitimately be said to be the best team in baseball that year -- the 1993 White Sox, the A's of 1988-90, the Cardinals of 2004-05. Only one of those teams (the 1989 Athletics) won the World Series. Two of his titles, including this one, came with squads that were less than the best.

Of course, the wider net cast for postseason teams in the current set up makes it almost inevitable that the best team doesn't win. John McGraw, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel -- those men had to have the best record in the league to get to the World Series. LaRussa doesn't.

In both 2006 and 2011, LaRussa -- the father of the modern bullpen of specialists and rigid closers -- had to get resourceful with the relief crew. The Cardinals this year went through five different closers, and eight different pitchers picked up saves. Three of the men in his postseason 'pen were midseason acquisitions (Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Marc Rzepczynski); another (Jake Westbrook) was a transplanted starter.  All through the postseason, as Jason Motte continued to get the ball for the final outs, LaRussa kept insisting that Motte wasn't the closer, that there was no closer.

That was just one of the challenges for LaRussa this season. Remember:

  • Adam Wainwright, arguably his best starter (and the man who he turned into his October closer in 2006) went down for the year during spring training, opening a giant hole in the rotation. 
  • LaRussa was troubled by a severe case of shingles from practically the start of the year and was forced by his bosses to take a leave of absence in May. He is still on medication for the ailment.
  • Dave Duncan, his long-time pitching coach and confidant, had a long leave himself to tend to his severely ill wife.

The Cardinals were not the best team in baseball in 2011. But LaRussa led them to the title anyway. It was, perhaps, the most impressive accomplishment of an impressive managerial career.


  1. This is why this remains my favorite baseball blog. I, like you I think, am not the biggest Tony LaRussa fan in the world, but I appreciate the fact that you give him his due. I may not like him, but LaRussa has proven that he is a great manager.

    As for the Series, I would still argue that 91 was better (it had both a classic Game 6 and a great Game 7) and I can think of others I would put on par with this one (1960 and 1975 are two that quickly come to mind).

    But at the same time, if the Baseball Gods conspired to give us St. Louis-Texas 2011 year after year, I wouldn't complain.

    Thanks, Mr. Thoma, for a great blog, and while I will follow you through the winter, I can't wait til next year!

  2. I echo your thoughts, Anonymous. Nice comments; great blog.