The retirement of Tony La Russa ends, by any measure, the best managerial run in Cardinals history, but also ends the era of the most polarizing uniformed man ever to set foot on the St. Louis sports scene.
The bottom line is undeniable. La Russa’s teams earned playoff berths in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 (when they lost the World Series to Boston), 2005, 2006 (when they won the World Series), 2009 and 2011 (when they won the World Series).
Despite the playoff runs, despite the fact that La Russa was the winningest manager in Cardinals history and had the best Cardinals winning percentage since Johnny Keane from 1960-1964, despite the fact that the Cardinals have the third most wins and second most playoff wins in the majors since his arrival, despite the fact that the Cardinals are the only team to appear in three World Series in the last decade, some fans never warmed to him.
Perhaps it was because he never moved to St. Louis full time. Perhaps it was his intensity, and his prickly personality in his post-game media sessions after losses. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t Whitey Herzog.
The fact of the matter is that Cardinals fans have enjoyed amazing success in a mid-sized market. Among the five markets just above St. Louis are Miami, Cleveland and Denver. Among those just below are Pittsburgh, Baltimore and San Diego. The Cardinals have blown those cities’ baseball teams out of the water in terms of success over La Russa’s tenure.
He adapted, getting young players like David Freese, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker and Albert Pujols into the lineup after playing mostly veterans in his first 10 years here. And those veterans, guys like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina and Mike Matheny, played far and away their best baseball under La Russa in St. Louis. He made guys like Abraham Nunez, Craig Paquette, Felipe Lopez and David Eckstein tons of money. He manipulated the bullpen, deviating from his allegiance to Ryan Franklin and settling on Jason Motte at the end. And he did what should be the biggest thing: he won. Cardinals fans should be forever grateful that they had the future Hall of Famer as their manager for 16 years.
The next guy has a tough act to follow.