The unquantifiable relief of rooting for Tony La Russa

I'll miss the weird stuff about Tony La Russa. I'll miss pitchers hitting eighth, and I would even if it didn't apparently work; I'll miss knowing that the manager of my favorite baseball team was the same guy who had briefly attempted to abolish the concept of the starting pitcher entirely, just because he thought destroying baseball might earn him a few more wins. I'll miss the non-sequitur-filled interviews, the abrupt walk-outs, the sunglasses and the shingles, the utter certainty that the Rally Squirrel was a girl and Torty a guy, and that they were in a committed relationship. 

I'll miss the combination of impossibly rigid strategy and weirdly flexible thinking that leads a man to name and categorize nearly every player-role on his roster—the closer, the lefty specialist, the righty specialist, the long guy, the long-long guy, the guy who brings damage in the two-hole, the second lead-off man, and most recently Fernando Salas as the set-up man bridge to the long reliever to the regional manager—and then proceed to fill those roles with a series of unconventional and entirely untelegraphed choices. Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig at second base, Braden Looper starting for the first time since high school, the string of unheralded starters transmuted into inning-eaters and ephemeral aces. 

That's where all those roles—eventually so unwieldy that they became impossible to optimize—came from, after all. La Russa's earned a reputation in his dotage as a stubborn micromanager, but that micromanagement came about not because he was a narcissist—he didn't write Men at Work any more than Billy Beane wrote Moneyball—but because he was desperate to maximize the value of every player on the roster. If it meant putting a burnt-out starter in for strict ninth-inning stints or turning a tweener outfielder into a tweener infielder he'd do it, because Tony La Russa was never afraid to lose unconventionally. Nobody ever got fired for not starting Skip Schumaker at second base. 

Sometimes that restlessness produced Dennis Eckersley and other times it produced Ryan Franklin, and it's the curse of the position that a manager will be celebrated for uncovering a star until we decide he's always been a star but excoriated for uncovering a dud indefinitely. I wouldn't trade the failures for the successes, though, and if I were a historian or an analyst this would be the part of Tony La Russa's career that demanded the most study. 

But most of all I'll miss the unquantified emotional advantage I got from watching a Tony La Russa team. Tony La Russa did a lot of things I hated—most of them related to center fielders who struck out too much and looked lazy out there—and didn't seem to be any good with young pitchers, even when he used them correctly.

But when I saw him on the Cardinals' side and some random, chaw-spitting ex-player cannon fodder on the other—some guy without a chip on his shoulder; without the strange control of the clubhouse tone that made some Cardinals teams into seething, covered cauldrons of inexplicable indignation; without a track record that's more or less unmatched in recent baseball history—the game always seemed tipped incrementally in our favor. I knew the Cardinals had something going for them. I couldn't name it, though smarter people have tried, but I'm certain it existed, and I'll miss it. 

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