LaRussa Carved Distinct Path On The Road To Cooperstown
Monday morning, the inevitable became reality as the announcement was made that Tony LaRussa had been selected for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For the most successful manager born within the last century, the decision was honestly not a difficult one to reach. Rather, it is a due that shows that persistence truly does pay off in the end.
LaRussa was the backbone and identity shaping presence for two of the memorable runs for a pair of baseball’s most distinguished franchises. And despite not ever being one to shy away from stating his mind or bulldogging his tactics through anything—or anyone, who may doubt them, the results stood for themselves: LaRussa was simply the best at what he did for over three decades.
After cutting his managerial teeth with the Chicago White Sox, it was in Oakland where first made his major bones by building the American League powerhouse of the late 80’s and early 90’s around the Hall of Fame (and Hall of Fame-caliber) talents of Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart and Jose Canseco, among others. After taking the head job in 1986, over the next nine seasons the A’s won three American League pennants, with the peak being their victory in the 1989 World Series.
However, it was his tenure in St. Louis that will stand as the definitive run of his career. When he arrived in St. Louis, the Cardinal franchise was on a downturn. After being the most successful National League franchise of the 1980’s, they had not been to the playoffs in 10 seasons and had struggled to keep their head above water within their own division.
All of that changed when LaRussa took the helm.
The organization underwent sweeping changes in 1996 with the new management group headed by Bill DeWitt took over, and one of the first changes made was to acquire LaRussa to lead a revival from the bench. With new general manager Walt Jocketty, he was armed with a new look Cardinal club, and LaRussa swiftly led the group back to the top of the newly minted National League Central and within one game of the World Series. Over the following 15 years, he would reach the postseason 10 more times, including three World Series, with victories in 2006 and 2011. By the time he decided to call it quits, his mark on the franchise was indisputable. Of his 2,728 victories, 1,408 came in the Cardinal uniform, making him the most successful St. Louis manager ever by 367 wins. He won seven divisional titles and never went more than three years without reaching the postseason. All things considered, he restored the luster to the Cardinal name.
However, these means were not reached without some friction along the way. His non-compromising style was unapologetic and was not questioned without one of his signature glares, the look of which you could almost read him attempting to gather himself to not respond with too much hostility, verbally at least. This approach caused notably friction between him and even his most talented players. Ozzie Smith mostly stayed away from the team during his tenure, due to his disagreement with how his final year was handled under LaRussa. His rift with the Rasmus family is well known, as was the resistance between Scott Rolen and himself, leading to Rolen’s departure. TLR’s persistence on doing things his way annually ruffled even the feathers of the masses that came out to support his team.
But ultimately, his way proved more often than not to be the best way. If there is one thing he cannot be tied to, it is the textbook. His championship teams in ’06 and ’11 stand in as a stark reminder that he had a skill for making the unlikely seem like the best option, and ultimately triumphing. His reliance on a succeeding with an powerful American League approach in the slash-and-dash National League furthered this methodology. As a manager, he staunchly stood by his guys, and took the hits when things went wrong. Case in point remaining in the blame he takes for the improbable collapse of Rick Ankiel’s career. He believed in players earning their stripes, but once they did, he would stick with them throughout the rest of their career. Much of this is shown in his career-spanning relationship with Dave Duncan, as well as the carryover of many of the standouts of his Oakland days contributing in St. Louis as well. The acquisition, and coaching return, of Mark McGwire only furthers the point: once you were in, you were in for life.
He believed in the game being played the right way, and quite often, whether it was clear in the moment or not, that was his way. Although the motive may have seemed seemed cloudy, the outcome often was not. While he never captured the people the way that Herzog did, nor was he a face of the organization in the way that Matheny is, but he would not have been who he was if he had been the congenial type. It was not in his nature to be welcoming or too often engaging, but it was his focus and demeanor which often raised his teams above both their talent and pay level. Regardless of how many MVP’s, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year winners he may have had in tow, there was no doubt who ran the show. It was undoubtedly Tony’s team.
In the end, success breed acceptance, and he became a part of the Cardinal family, as his permanently shelved #10 on the outfield walls proves. Only two others have outdone him in the wins category, Connie Mack and John McGraw. Of that trio, him and Mack are the only coaches in North American sports history to manage over 5,000 games.
And while he heads to Cooperstown with joined by another duo of greats in his contemporaries Bobby Cox and another former Cardinal skipper in Joe Torre, with all due respects, neither did what Tony did to reach this pinnacle. LaRussa will on in time as a complicated, but undeniably incomparable presence in both Cardinal and baseball lore.