For La Russa, others, time for a change

These things are never clear-cut.

Tony La Russa is not solely responsible for the Cardinals’ collapse, just as Joe Torre isn’t solely responsible for the Dodgers’ surrender, just as Lou Piniella wasn’t solely responsible for the Cubs’ malaise.

It’s not just their age.

Think La Russa, 66; Torre, 70; and Piniella, 67, are too old? Funny, you wouldn’t say that about three more successful senior citizens — the Braves’ Bobby Cox, 69; Phillies’ Charlie Manuel, 66; and Blue Jays’ Cito Gaston; 66 — and even the Reds’ Dusty Baker, 61.

Each case is different.

When a manager’s time is up, it’s up. Doesn’t matter if he’s 36, as A.J. Hinch was with the Diamondbacks. Doesn’t matter if he’s as accomplished as La Russa or Torre. There comes a point when change is necessary for the good of all.

It was that way with Piniella and the Cubs. It is that way with Torre and the Dodgers. And it sure looks that way with La Russa and the Cardinals as they face the Reds for the final time this weekend at Busch Stadium (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET).

The upheaval in the managerial ranks this offseason will be unprecedented. Piniella already is gone. Cox and Gaston also plan to retire. Torre and La Russa, in the final years of contracts, must decide whether they even want to return, and many other positions are in flux.

Unfortunate as the farewells for some of the big-name managers might be, there should be no shame for any of them. Piniella, Torre and La Russa did not simply become dumb. Yet, even for three such distinct personalities, there are telltale signs that the end is — or was — near.

Difficulties relating with young players. An increased sense of detachment. A general world-weariness with the job.

“These jobs, they take a lot out of you,” one general manager says. “There is a whole lot of management that goes on — and most of that management occurs before the first pitch.”

Torre is dealing not only with a group of young players who seem indifferent to his touch, but also the circus of the McCourts’ divorce trial and the financial constraints of Frank McCourt’s ownership, which has helped keep the team from acquiring one elite starting pitcher after another.

This is not what Torre signed up for. It’s rather amazing — and a credit to general manager Ned Colletti and his staff as well — that the Dodgers reached back-to-back National League Championship Series in 2008 and ’09.

Torre likes to manage. He likes the money, as any of us would. The Mets seem the most obvious fit if he wants another shot, but why would he want to work for another dysfunctional organization? Hasn’t he had enough of the grind?

La Russa, predictably, is a more complex case.

He so relishes competing, it almost seems like he would manage for free. His teams are known for their unwavering determination, if joyless demeanor. La Russa’s mantra is “Play a hard nine.” As recently as Aug. 9 to 11, when the Cardinals swept the Reds in Cincinnati, the rightness of the St. Louis approach — in contrast, say, to the brashness of Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips — seemed a given.

Since that series, the Cardinals are 4-13. The Reds are 14-4.

Typical Cardinals, these are not. They make mistakes. They rarely are in sync. They play not to lose. The talent is not what it was — the Cardinals are below average offensively at catcher and every infield position but first base. As one scout recently put it, “Maybe they’re just not that good a team.”

Still, few clubs possess stars as gifted as first baseman Albert Pujols, left fielder Matt Holliday and right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals’ Opening Day $93 million payroll ranked 12th in the majors — not great, certainly not terrible. Yet, the team is 51-54 since May 4.

The loss of right fielder Ryan Ludwick in a controversial three-team deal for right-hander Jake Westbrook essentially opened one hole to fill another, and only seemed to amplify the Cardinals’ offensive difficulties. The recent extended absence of center fielder Colby Rasmus due to a strained right calf did not help.

La Russa, trying to snap his team out of it, responded with some typically bizarre lineup decisions – batting Allen Craig leadoff, hitting Rasmus seventh. Maybe La Russa is simply trying to squeeze the most out of what he has. Or maybe he is telling general manager John Mozeliak and the Cardinals’ ownership, “See? I don’t have enough.”

Either way, it isn’t working.

La Russa has failed to click with Rasmus, his best young position player. Veterans might bristle under La Russa, but usually grasp what he is trying to accomplish. Younger, less inexperienced players might find it more difficult to adjust.

Torre and the Tigers’ Jim Leyland face similar old-school, new-school divisions, as did Piniella in Chicago. Leyland, under contract for one more season, does not appear in immediate jeopardy, but check back next year. The Tigers have faded in four of the past five seasons.

Cox, in contrast, seems to relate to most — but not all — of his players. Manuel, in Philadelphia, shows the same kind of loyalty to his players and receives it in return. Then again, it’s easier for those two — their teams are among the most talented in the NL. It’s also easier for Gaston, who is managing with minimal expectations in Toronto.

The point is, nothing lasts forever.

Piniella, Torre and La Russa have combined for 6,770 victories and seven World Series titles. Add the combined totals of Cox and Gaston, and the numbers increase to more than 10,000 victories and 10 World Series titles.

We’re talking about a managerial Mt. Rushmore, but not everyone can go out a winner.

A generational torch is passing. And it’s OK.

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