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Keidel: Tony La Russa - The Pope And His Cardinals

By Jason Keidel
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Name four St. Louis starters not named Pujols…


Maybe Matt Holliday. Maybe you remembered that Lance Berkman miraculously (if not suspiciously) went from Yankee Zero to Cardinal Hero. Yadier Molina? Nick Punto? Rafael Furcal? I doubt it.

Maybe you remember that the Cardinals' ace (Adam Wainright) was finished before the season started, and that their default horse, Chris Carpenter, started 1-7. Maybe you remember that the Cardinals were 10.5 games back with 31 to play, and 7.5 back with 20 to play. In a season of colossal comebacks (Tampa Bay & St. Louis) and titanic tanks (Boston & Atlanta), the Cardinals are playing in the World Series when they have no right to, not by any reasonable measure.

And there were no shortcuts. They beat the two best teams in the National League (Phillies and Brewers), each exponentially better than the Cards, clinching both series on enemy soil, leaving us with the sport's most incongruous scene – celebrating in the heart of a heartbroken park, hopping and high-fiving while 40,000 fans trickle solemnly down the aisles.

At some point we praise the man who made this happen. No matter the players, there's one wallpaper behind every moment – Tony La Russa, who seems to make miracles his rite of autumn.

This baseball season stamped the blue-collar ethic. Before the ALCS and NLCS began, the top nine payrolls were already booking tee times. Indeed, the Tigers and Cardinals were the only clubs who spent a meager $100 million on payroll. Combine the payrolls of the two World Series teams and they don't make the Yankees' yearly nut.

This season proves, again, that you can't buy championships. Money mainly gets you to the dance, but other, metaphysical means get you the hardware: things like lucky squirrels and David Freese.

And with some teams, or some managers, it goes from odd to ordained. Only John Mcgraw and Connie Mack have more wins than Tony La Russa, and that can't be by accident. Only La Russa has won multiple pennants in both leagues, and Sparky Anderson joins La Russa as the only men who won a World Series in each league.

And some point we apply context to the man who made his bones in the era of Earl Weaver and Billy Martin, who expressed themselves in a far more physical cadence, kicking dirt and tossing bases while getting tossed from games.

La Russa has plied his trade with a more corporate cadence, like a lawyer. (He actually found time between playing and managing to earn a law degree.) La Russa, along with Bill Walsh in the NFL, were the counterculture to the fire and brimstone histrionics of their peers. They made their trade a thinking man's endeavor. And it's impossible to argue with the results.

When judging coaches and managers you can't just use the cold calculus of championships. Sure, you need one or two to validate your career, but not all managers can be Casey Stengel, inheriting a Hall of Fame machine to which you just apply oil every month or so.

You need Pujols to be Pujols – and Sir Albert delivered an NLCS for the archives, batting .478 with 9 RBI – and someone like David Freese to forget he's David Freese (.545, 3 HR, 9 RBI).

And when the bullpen gets more outs than the rotation for the entire series, the manager managed his tail off. No skipper ever made more pitching changes (28) in a six-game series. This year, the cognoscenti concluded that you can't win without an ace and unflappable closer. The Cardinals had neither. La Russa had three closers this season, jugging injuries and poor performance to a 67-63 record, before his team launched into a 30-13 run, wrapping up their 18th NL pennant.

In stark relief to his Oakland days, when the Bash Brothers mashed their way into October and La Russa just handed the ball to Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley, the laconic baseball lifer earned a rep as a repo man, remolding disparate parts and guiding an 83-win team to the title in 2006. (Mets fans remember it well.) And he's four wins away from immortality, assuming he's not already there.

If this Pope leads his flock of Cardinals to another World Series title, his third – and why not? He's already beaten the best team (Philadelphia) and best pitcher (Roy Halladay) in baseball, on their field in the final game – at some point we ponder Tony La Russa, and where he nestles into the Mt. Rushmore of managers. When we're done we may call him the best we've ever seen.

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