In yesterday’s post, I commented in passing about the uncertainty surrounding manager Tony LaRussa. LaRussa is not signed past this year and has said he won’t decide on his return until the end of the year. This is consistent with what he’s done in the past, so that in and of itself is no indication.
I’ve been a fan of LaRussa since his days in Oakland. Those A’s teams of the late ’80s were some of my favorites, so I was glad to see LaRussa make his way to the Midwest back in 1996. He brought a lot of his former players over as well, most notably Mark McGwire in 1997, and began winning almost immediately. In 1996 they were one game away from going to the World Series before they were just blasted in Games 6 and 7 by Atlanta. They stayed in contention in 1997, in my opinion trading for McGwire about a week or two too late to make a real impact. 1998 and 1999 were the home run years, which took the focus off of the fact that the team wasn’t that good. Then the modern golden era: from 2000 until 2006 the Cardinals have missed the playoffs only once (in 2003, a year they had the lead in the division until September) and have two Series appearances and one title to show for it.
TLR has really created a love/hate split in Cardinal Nation, at least until the Series title last year. At one time, there was a group of fans calling themselves “The Faction” that demanded his firing, even going as far as flying a banner over the stadium (which was a fairly tasteless act, IMO). Some say his over-preparation and severe Type A personality grates on the players, causing them to play uptight and have problems coming through in the postseason. They are of the opinion that TLR basically figured he was playing with house money in October of 2006 and everyone was more relaxed as a result. While I’m not sure I quite agree entirely with that assessment (the biggest reason the Cards won in ’06 was the pitching was there–the offense, for the most part, was its normal weak October self), there may be a kernel of truth in there.
There seem to be a few cracks in the facade now, though. For a supremely prepared guy, it’s surprising that twice this year, he has listed the wrong pitcher on the lineup card, correcting it later on. He even was overheard at the All-Star Game making an error in listing out changes to the umpire, though that could have just been a slip of the tongue. Of course, he started off the year being arrested for a DUI and that court case is still pending. That would be pretty rough hanging over anyone’s head to start with, but when reliever Josh Hancock was killed driving drunk, that most likely hit even closer to home for LaRussa.
Then there have been the sniping with the players. This may have happened in the past and been kept quiet, but since October especially, seems like more and more are coming out. Edmonds, Rolen, Kip Wells, even a little one with Pujols after the All-Star Break controversy (personally, I think AP should have hit for Orlando Hudson in the ninth, but that’s just me), it seems like more and more feuds are popping up, which may show that either LaRussa has a little less control in the clubhouse or he’s not willing to suffer the players as much as he has in the past.
I still think that Tony comes back for one more shot in 2008, but every day that passes with shoddy baserunning, lackluster performances, and the team sliding down the standings makes it more likely that he’ll decide that running ARF on a full-time basis might be what he wants to do for a while. The man hasn’t sat out a season since he started managing back in 1979 at age 34. He’s now 62, so if he wants to step aside and see what summer is like without baseball, he’s more than earned the right.