The soft staccato sound of camera shutters suggested something vaguely Nixonian was about to happen — certainly more intense than the usual World Series off day.
Even before Tony La Russa made his entrance, the interview room had been standing-room-only, the exhausted media fraternity suddenly buzzing, already sniffing for weakness, for that long-awaited crack in the hubristic façade of the 67-year-old manager.
It is my sad duty to report, then, that I bore witness to no such thing. Just the opposite, in fact. La Russa was brilliant. It was a performance, sure, but he played the role — that of the good manager, the fair and magnanimous skipper-patriarch — with candor, confidence and supreme self-awareness (not an inconsiderable feat for such an imperious public man). In fact, you left wondering how someone so smart could be stupid enough to leave Marc Rzepczynski in to pitch to Mike Napoli with the bases loaded in Game 5.
“Can I say something first?” he asked. Well, he didn’t really ask. He was establishing the agenda. “There’s one thing I’d like to get at.”
He was referring to Albert Pujols, and the embarrassment that resulted from Allen Craig being caught stealing in the seventh inning of a tie game with Pujols at the plate. For the sake of clarification, it was Pujols, not La Russa, who called for the hit-and-run. That was Pujols’ prerogative and his privilege.
“It has everything to do with what Albert has earned as far as his understanding of the game,” the manager said.
In other words, Pujols has such great baseball sense he is allowed to make these boneheaded decisions with absolute impunity.
“Some of you don’t know me very well, but it’s been the same philosophy since I started,” La Russa said. “…Treat the club like a family…I don’t throw this family under the bus…I’d rather take the hit.”
Again, brilliant. But more than a little devious, too. By opening with Pujols, the manager’s purpose was three-fold. First, he burned about a third of the presser, time he didn’t want to be spending answering the real questions, which had to do with his mishandling of the bullpen. Second, he afforded himself yet another opportunity to praise and appease his soon-to-be free agent star, Pujols. Third, in contrast to what he claimed, La Russa ingenuously had begun the process of self-exoneration.
If you remember the hit-and-run, with the erratic Alexi Ogando on the mound, Pujols left himself to flail at an eye-level fastball about a foot off the plate.
“I was just glad I didn’t put it on,” La Russa said, getting a chuckle as he threw his best player under the bus.
It happened again in the ninth: Craig caught stealing with Pujols (representing the tying run) swinging. That time the count was full. It wasn’t a hit-and-run, La Russa cautioned, it was a “run and hit.” Yes, he made the call, hoping to avoid a double play. And yes, he took full responsibility. But by then, no one wanted to talk about Pujols anymore. The real issue, after all, was La Russa’s handling of the bullpen in the seventh. If the Cardinals lose this Series, the sequence will go on the manager’s permanent record.
Nothing much seemed to change in his explanation. Twice the bullpen was called, and twice the wrong pitcher began warming up. La Russa continued to blame the miscommunication on crowd noise. Then again, he wasn’t certain who actually called the bullpen. Was it him or his pitching coach, Dave Duncan?
“I think I called,” he said.
Was he covering for his long-time coach? Or subtly throwing him under the bus? I’d say covering if I had to guess. Then again, guessing is what La Russa seemed to be doing in that seventh inning.
At the end of all the alleged mis-hearing, you still had the lefty Rzepczynski going against the especially hot and right-handed Mike Napoli, who knocked a decisive double. It was Joel Sherman of the New York Post who asked why Lance Lynn, who was supposedly unavailable, was warming up when there were “at least four other right-handers in the bullpen.” Wouldn’t the bullpen coach, Derek Lilliquist, remind the manager of Lynn’s precarious status?
“Well,” La Russa began, “I would think, and I would be disappointed if Derek would have been saying, ‘You know, Tony, I mean, do you know what you’re doing?’… There wasn’t anything there that Derek did wrong at all, and I’ve assured him of that 10 times.”
Spoken like a true leader. Obviously, La Russa doesn’t give his coaches the same prerogatives he grants his superstar. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, who wants a bullpen coach thinking for himself? The press conference would’ve sucked.