A little later than scheduled, I finally posed my question to the United Cardinal Bloggers for the Fall Roundtable discussions:
It would appear as if the Tony La Russa Era is soon coming to a close, but in MLB terms he’s had a unusually long run managing in St. Louis.
As we all know, that time hasn’t been without its “events” surrounding or directly as a result of TLR.
My question: what has been your favorite, most entertaining, most bizarre, and/or most embarrassing TLR storyline of his time with the Cardinals?
It could be one of the many feuds, it could be his success or his many detractors, perhaps a story that you know that others may not.
The responses were varied somewhat, and at least one personal account…
Larussa and Kline giving each other the finger, now thats classy
Daniel, C70 at the Bat
You’ll appreciate this, Nick, but I do think one of the most defining things of the TLR era is hitting the pitcher eighth.
It’s one thing to have done this in a game somewhere along the way, but to make it a legitimate strategy and feature of the offense? Even if, as Pip has pointed out at times, he doesn’t quite grasp why it works, it still is something that is so closely associated with LaRussa that we will not soon forget it when he’s gone.
Dennis, Pitchers Hit Eighth
I think that one of the most bizarre storylines of the TLR era was the Scott Rolen fiasco. Tony handled that incident with all the grace and dignity of a Randy Moss press conference. Tony took a lot of that spat public, when it should’ve stayed private. He also spoke out of turn quite a bit when referring to “accommodating” Rolen with a trade. He was not (and still is not) the GM, so that wasn’t exactly his call, either. In a battle between TLR’s ego and Scott Rolen, the ego won much to the detriment of the team. Rolen got the last laugh, though. He hit .285 with 20 homers and 83 rbi this year on a playoff team.
Dustin, Welcome to Baseball Heaven
My most entertaining storyline is from 2004 when my all time favorite LOOGY Steve Kline flipped off TLR from the bullpen in a game against the Cubs. I can’t remember who was on the bump at the time for the Cardinals when TLR was making his way to the mound but all signs pointed to a pitching change at that moment. The camera switched to the Cardinal bullpen as they too thought the change would be made while at that moment TLR turned and walked back to the dugout as Kline threw a middle finger in the air in frustration for not being brought into the game. If you have no idea what I’m rambling about here’s a link to the game wrap. Not a major storyline but still worth a mention as TLR’s post game reaction was fantastic.
I’m offering a positive: Tony La Russa was at his memorable best in 2002 when he somehow got 97 wins and a division championship from a team that had to overcome the stunning death of pitcher Darryl Kile on June 18. In addition, he held together a staff that employed a whopping 26 pitchers (including such notables as Jose Rodriguez, Nerio Rodriguez, Matt Duff, Kevin Joseph, Gabe Molina and Josh Pearce). Of those 26, 14 made starts (including Travis Smith, Mike Crudale and Luther Hackman). He squeezed 11 wins from vagabond rookie Jason Simontacchi. Then, the Cardinals swept the defending champion Diamondbacks (featuring Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling) in the division series, and battled the Barry Bonds-led Giants in the league championship series. It was one of the storied seasons in the rich history of the Cardinals and La Russa deserves a lot of credit for it.
I can’t let this question go by without offering up one of my favorite all-time personal stories. I had unbelievably good fortune to share an otherwise empty restaurant with Tony LaRussa in September 2009 immediately following a Cards game at Busch. We didn’t sit together, but we did chat a little. And when I steered the conversation toward that night’s ballgame, I was done for. The exchange went something like this:
“Let me ask you,” I said, “why Wellemeyer got the start tonight instead of Hawksworth. I’m just asking as a curious fan.”
“Well, I would say not curious, but clueless,” LaRussa replied.
That’s right…Tony LaRussa once called me clueless. Gotta love his candor. But he went on to explain why starting Hawksworth in that particular spot was a bad idea. And, for the record, the Cards did win that game with Wellemeyer on the mound. But I couldn’t get past the “clueless” comment. I wasn’t insulted or anything…it was just something I wasn’t expecting, and all I could do was laugh. It probably helped that this was after the game and a couple of beers. It did show me that, if you want to talk baseball with the man, you’d better bring your A game. And yes, of course I wrote a blog about it. Lots more detail there.
Jacqueline, Cardinal Diamond Diaries
I have a small but telling positive memory of TLR. Rick Ankiel had returned to the Cards after a long road back trying to remake himself from a failed pitching phenom into a power hitting outfielder.
It was his first at bat and after receiving a typical warm welcome back from Card fans, he launched a home run.
The camera caught Tony’s reaction and he was demonstratively happy. He was actually smiling broadly and clapping. I remember thinking at the time, I had never seen him that emotional. That gesture shows the positive side of TLR’s die hard loyalty.
Good recall, Jackie. The Ankiel anecdote along with La Russa’s attempt to rehabilitate the image of another former star, Mark McGwire, paint a picture of a manager whose personal loyalties and perhaps need to exorcise guilt feelings often push objective decision-making and awareness of the greater good to the background. TLR has been at his most strident and obstinate when defending his “preferred players.”
From an on-field perspective, I agree with Daniel’s assessment that TLR’s batting the pitcher eighth has been his most noteworthy tactical legacy as Cardinal manager. Otherwise, for a manager who institutionalized platoon-advantage relief pitching, he has managed rather conventionally in St. Louis.
Matt, Joe Sports Fan
I tend to agree with Daniel (perhaps obviously). The pitcher batting eighth will forever be remembered as a La Russa tactic, regardless of how many times it has been or will be imitated.
Perhaps that is La Russa’s lasting legacy – innovation with a roster – for better or worse.
Check out the rest of the roundtable discussions here.