You Have to Tip Your Cap to Tony La Russa

I hear all the time from Tony La Russa haters. I’m surrounded by ‘em. E-mails, Facebook posts, tweets, texts and actual real life, verbal conversations. And I can’t figure it out. Sure, La Russa gives us plenty to talk about. Many of his moves are open to question, and some don’t like the fact that he’s not Mr. Rogers in postgame media sessions. I have one friend that insists that La Russa has run the Cardinals organization into the ground. Another says he has no idea to handle a bullpen. But if you like winning, how can you not like La Russa?

This is the ninth time the Cardinals have been in the playoffs since La Russa took over. In 16 years, Cardinals fans have been subjected to three losing seasons. As a point of reference, the Pirates have had losing seasons every year La Russa has been the Cardinals manager.

Since his arrival, the Cardinals are third in regular-season wins, behind the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves, and are second in post-season wins, behind only the Yankees. They’ve never finished last in the division in those 16 years, never finishing below fourth. In that time, the Cubs have finished last in the division three times, the Brewers have finished last three times, the Astros have finished last once, the Reds, while avoiding the cellar, have finished fifth in the six-team NL Central on five occasions, and of course Pittsburgh has been hideous.

People don’t like the moves La Russa makes, but clearly he’s right more often than not, which is evidenced because his teams win. And perhaps many of his moves don’t work, but that’s the case for every manager that ever managed.

The haters claim that La Russa has been a beneficiary of overwhelming talent, and that the team wins in spite of their manager. There’s no question that Walt Jocketty collected overwhelming talent for the Cardinals in 2004 and 2005, but did they win in spite of their manager in their other playoff years? He won with John Mabry at first in 1996, and a back of the rotation featuring Mike Morgan and Donovan Osborne. Overwhelming? I think not.

The 2000 team had a declining Mark McGwire at first and Fernando Tatis at third, with guys like Eduardo Perez and Craig Paquette getting significant playing time. Garrett Stephenson won 16 games. Another example of good management, not overwhelming talent.

Do you really, at this stage, consider Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay, Rafael Furcal, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, etc. overwhelming talent? I don’t. I look at 2011 as a magnificent managerial job. I, along with most people, counted the Cardinals out in August. They were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the wild-card race. While the Cardinals kept playing down the stretch and made the playoffs, the Reds trailed the Cards by three games on Aug. 24, and finished 11 behind the Cards. The Giants led St. Louis by two on that date yet finished four games behind the Cardinals. Who did the best job of keeping his team playing between Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy and La Russa? You answer that question.

To boil down the lunatic criticism, let’s look at Tuesday’s game at Busch Stadium. Jaime Garcia has thrown 89 pitches with Phils catcher Carlos Ruiz coming to the plate. Ruiz has been a Cardinals killer, going 8-for-24 with a homer against the Cardinals, and had hit the ball hard twice in the game. The Phillies had pinch-hitter deluxe Ross Gload and Raul Ibanez on the bench if La Russa brought in a right-hander. Right-handed hitting Ben Francisco hit for the pitcher having gone 1-for-9 against Garcia, 1-for-18 in his post-season career, and with no homers since May. Yet, the haters wanted La Russa to remove Garcia after 93 pitches so that he could have a less beneficial matchup. Granted, Francisco hit a home run. But does that make the moves wrong? I analyzed it before and after, and still think what he did was right.

Unless you blindly reject everything La Russa does as a manager, how could you want the alternative? Of 295 men that have managed in the big leagues and qualify with 320 games managed (two seasons), La Russa is 58th all-time in winning percentage at .536, just ahead of Ron Gardenhire, Whitey Herzog and Terry Francona. His 363 games over .500 ranks ninth all time. His 14 playoff appearances trail only Bobby Cox and Joe Torre all time.

These are statistical facts, which I hate to use to ruin a good opinion. But it’s foolish to argue against La Russa being a good manager. If you’re making that argument, you either are foolish, or are a blind hater.