One more chance for La Russa to rule

Baseball had much to celebrate Sunday: Fan voting for the All-Star Game reached a new high, with an astounding 40.2 million ballots cast. Texas Rangers hero Josh Hamilton set a new single-season record with 11 million votes. Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ rookie sensation, will make the first of what should be many All-Star appearances.

Yet the most-talked-about person in baseball was a 67-year-old with a .199 career batting average who is no longer an active player, coach or manager.

Really, though, who expected Tony La Russa to stay in the background?

However you interpreted his snubs of Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips — I, for one, believe spite was part of the motivation — they underscored the enduring romance of La Russa’s career: Tony loves the spotlight, and the spotlight loves Tony.

La Russa is at once the most successful and conspicuous manager of our lifetime. He won 2,728 games and three World Series titles because he has hard-boiled ideas about how baseball ought to be played. And he will take every opportunity to remind us of that, before and during what could be his final meaningful appearance in uniform.

Let’s be clear: La Russa has every right to do so. He will manage the National League during the All-Star Game on July 10 (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET). He earned the assignment because his St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last year. That’s how the system works. In this context, it hardly matters that La Russa announced his retirement shortly after the parade.

La Russa may have only one game on his 2012 schedule, but already he’s in midseason form. He’s been known to teach (and occasionally preach) the game’s finer points. This time, Cueto and Phillips were the unwitting pupils.

You may remember the history: Two years ago, in advance of an August showdown between the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, Phillips referred to the Cardinals as “little bitches” in an interview with Hall of Fame writer Hal McCoy. A benches-clearing brawl erupted during the series. Cueto kicked Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue in the head during the melee; LaRue sustained a concussion and never played in the major leagues again.

In La Russa’s mind, Phillips and Cueto disrespected the game through their actions. Now, do I believe La Russa left them off the roster solely because of something that happened two years ago? No, I don’t. To La Russa, winning is paramount. He lets nothing get in the way of his relentless pursuit of that objective. For La Russa, the obligation to his team — in this case, the National League — is sacrosanct.

Yet, if he believed multiple candidates were roughly as deserving as one another, would La Russa give the nod to Phillips or Cueto?

I doubt it. And that may be what happened.

Reds manager Dusty Baker, another longtime La Russa nemesis, clearly sensed something untoward.

“A snub like that looks bad,” Baker told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren’t there anymore are making some of the selections.”

La Russa didn’t let the issue die there. How he could he? Later in the day, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Cueto “probably” would be on the team if he weren’t scheduled to pitch the final game before the All-Star break — even though there are no restrictions on the involvement of such pitchers.

In other words, this was Dusty’s fault.

“The comments Dusty made clearly disappoint me and are attacking my integrity,” La Russa continued. “The All-Star experience is too important to let anything stand in the way of a decision like that.”

The exclusions of Cueto and Phillips won’t turn the NL into a substantially weaker team. In fact, Phillips has only the fifth-best OPS among NL second basemen this year, behind fellow snub-ees Aaron Hill and Omar Infante. Statistically speaking, Cueto was the more egregious omission. Among healthy NL starters, he ranks second with a 2.26 ERA.

Sure, it’s true that La Russa didn’t use a single manager’s selection to put a Cardinal on the roster. But that’s not relevant. On demonstrated ability and 2012 performance, Cueto belongs on the team.

Managers have players they like and players they don’t like. There is plenty of evidence to suggest La Russa isn’t president of the Johnny Cueto fan club. Frankly, I can understand why. Cueto effectively ended the career of a veteran player on La Russa’s team. La Russa is a track-record sort of manager, and the 2010 incident is an unflattering line on Cueto’s résumé.

The business of picking All-Stars is an inherently biased task within a subjective sport. Controversy is inevitable. La Russa’s opinion — about players, about teams, about the game — has altered the course of baseball history for the better part of three decades. And much more often than not, he’s been right.

On July 10, for perhaps the last time, the country will watch as he imposes his will on a baseball game. He won’t be taking suggestions from Baker, Cueto or the rest of us. He never has.