The St. Louis Cardinals hired Tony La Russa in 1996 to manage. And so began a hot-and-cold, love-and-hate relationship with the man. It would be a relationship defined by breakdowns in personal relationships with players and success on the field, a relationship captured in the microcosm of 1996.
A rift developed between two proud and stubborn men when La Russa butted heads with Ozzie Smith, one of the great players and people in the franchise's history. The resentment the manager developed for his mistreatment of Ozzie was tempered somewhat by success on the field. It would be the first such instance of this dynamic but by no means the last. La Russa coached the 1996 incarnation of the club to within one game of the World Series. But the champagne to celebrate that pennant was never popped open and the merchandise to commemorate it never sold for the Braves rallied to win the NLCS and then [lose] the World Series. It was the first of numerous postseason collapses for La Russa-managed Cardinals teams.
La Russa's first brush with history in a The Birds On The Bat would be the steroid-fueled home run chase of 1998. How much he knew and when he knew it in regards to performance-enhanving drugs is one of the questions that will likely be raised by media members and historians in the years to come. It remains to be seen whether Hall-of-Fame voters will direct their righteous indignation at the manager of Mark McGwire in the way they have at the should-be Hall-of-Fame first baseman. For my money, the duo's plaques should stand side-by-side in Cooperstown.
Before the 2000 season the Cardinals added Jim Edmonds, Daryl Kile, and pitching phenom Rick Ankiel. The La Russa-managed club would bust out of the gates to a 17-8 start, never looking back en route to a 95-win season, National League Central crown, and a draw of the year 2000 edition of the 1990s juggernaut Atlanta Braves. Renowned for playing mind games, La Russa tried one on the Braves by announcing Daryl Kile the Game 1 starter, having Daryl Kile participate in the press conferences leading up to Game 1, but then pulling a bat-and-switch by starting rookie fireballer Rick Ankiel. The results were catastrophic. The Cardinals would win the game and the series but the franchise would lose Rick Ankiel, starting pitcher. Ankiel would throw 2.2 innings, walk six, with five wild pitches. The Cardinals would lose to the New York Mets in the NLCS. Ankiel would tally five walks and four wild pitches in 1.1 innings pitched, his last in the big leagues.
In 2001 the Cardinals were again in the postseason hunt. The Redbirds found themselves tied with the Houston Astros for the National League Central lead heading into the final series of the season. The Friday night game of that series was my first in-person of the La Russa era. After seven shutout innings from starter Woody Williams the Cards led 1-0 and Lance Berkman was set to leadoff the Astros' half of the eighth. La Russa called on journeyman reliever Jeff Tabaka, a pitcher few in the stadium had ever heard of, to face Big Puma. Berkman berked a game-tying homer and the Astros went on to win the game 2-1. After the game I was shocked at the fan reaction to the bullpen management specifically and La Russa as manager generally. Up until that point, I had no appreciation for the love-hate relationship Cardinals fans had with their manager.
In 2002, the Cardinals experienced a tragedy when pitcher Daryl Kile, a clubhouse leader, passed away mid-season in his hotel room. That season was one of La Russa's best as a manager. The Cardinals front office added veteran southpaw Chuck Finley and Scott Rolen, who were key players in a run that ended with a loss to the Giants in the NLCS after Rolen's season was ended in the NLDS due to a collision with Alex Cintron.
In 2003, the club underachieved and missed the playoffs. In 2004, the club put together an MV3-fueled season that was perhaps the greatest in franchise history. the '04 club won 105 games and a National League pennant only to be swept in the World Series by the cure-breaking Red Sox. In 2005, with an injured Scott Rolen missing significant time, the Cards won 100 games before losing the NLCS to the Astros.*
*In the original post, I flipped the win totals of the 2004 and 2005 Cardinals.
The Cards won 83 games in 2006 and only just eeked into the playoffs. An injured Rolen and aging Edmonds were shadows of their MV3 selves. Somehow, someway, the club knocked off the Padres, Mets, and Tigers en route to the franchise's tenth World Series title, a number the manager wore on his back during his tenure in St. Louis as a representation of the goal. It was a magical run.
The four years that followed were filled with a bad club ('07), an upstart group ('08), a division champ ('09), and a frustrating underachiever ('10). Coming into 2011 the Cardinals lost their ace, Adam Wainwright, to an arm injury during Spring Training. They then exploded out of the gates an apparent offensive juggernaut only to fade as the weather warmed with the coming of summer. An historic September run in which they won at a .692 clip combined with an historic Braves collapse allowed them to earn a playoff berth on the season's final day. You know the rest.
And so it is at the peak of his profession that Tony La Russa has decided to leave the storied Cardinals franchise. La Russa's has been a tenure marked by feuds with players such as Scott Rolen, Colby Rasmus, and Brendan Ryan, playoff collaps such as 1996 and 2004, and improbable championship runs in 2006 and this season. La Russa leaves first in St. Louis Cardinals franchise history in managerial wins and third in MLB history in the same category. La Russa is human, flawed like us. For every trait to be admired--tenacity, inteligence, appreciation for tradition--there is one to be disliked--stubbornness, rudeness, arrogance. Ours is a relationship that has run its course. I'm happy to see him go, especially after our eleventh World Series title, and I wish TLR the best.