Tony La Russa’s first reaction to the St. Louis Cardinals’ decision to retire his No. 10 jersey was one word: ”Incredulous.” After all, it’s only been a little more than six months since the World Series parade.
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”It’s not something you think about, or expect,” La Russa said.
But one of his former players thought a mid-May tribute was a bit tardy.
Pitcher Dave Stewart, one of horses of La Russa’s rotations in Oakland, said during a ceremony prior to the Braves-Cardinals game Friday that the number should have been retired while La Russa was still making out lineup cards.
”This day is long overdue,” Stewart said. ”Best manager I ever played for.”
Groundskeepers cut the grass with a big ”10” in short center field in tribute to the 67-year-old La Russa, who managed the Cardinals for 16 seasons and retired after leading a long-shot NL wild-card team to the title.
La Russa wore all three of his championship rings, the two he won with the Cardinals on the right ring finger and pinkie of his right hand. In a media briefing prior to the ceremony, he said he warmed to the idea after the team told him he could invite anyone he wanted.
”I made 15 calls and they all said yes,” La Russa said. ”I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact these guys came in from out of town.”
More than a dozen players, coaches and front office personnel from La Russa’s present and past were on the field for the ceremony that delayed the start of the game. The guest list included Tom Seaver, who won his 300th game with the White Sox under La Russa, along with fellow Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who played for La Russa in Oakland and St. Louis.
”He’s the smartest manager I ever played for,” said former Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein, the MVP of the 2006 World Series.
Without La Russa’s decision to convert him to closer, Eckersley freely acknowledges he wouldn’t have made the Hall.
”Tony made a name for himself,” Eckersley said. ”He deserves this honor and he’s going to go to the Hall of Fame, so I’m going to have to do this over and over again.”
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, La Russa’s right-hand man for most of his St. Louis tenure, sat on a folding chair near home plate during the ceremony. So did Joe Torre, who preceded La Russa as Cardinals manager and now works with him with Major League Baseball.
”I have to admit, when you managed across the field you hated him,” Torre said, ”because you knew he was always trying to plot something to beat you.”
The invitation list included outfielder Brian Jordan, who clashed with La Russa at first but grew to appreciate the manager’s tenacity, resolve and attention to detail.
”Tony is one of those guys that likes to control every aspect of the game, and at that time it was like `Come on, let me loose!”’ Jordan said. ”You live, you learn.
”I respected him even more when I went away.”
The Cardinals are in first place under new manager Mike Matheny, a calming presence following a man who was often cantankerous and caustic. But the holdovers miss La Russa.
First baseman Lance Berkman said people, and the media, have it all wrong.
”As an opposing player, you see all the moves, you see the head games, if you will, and the impression that you get is, `Man, this guy really digs himself,”’ Berkman said. ”He honestly could give a rip about what anybody thinks.
”He’s more than willing to take the blame if something doesn’t work out, he just tries to win the game that night.”
The team the Cardinals passed for the NL wild card on the final day last season just happened to be their opponent. Manager Fredi Gonzalez said the team owed it to the game to honor La Russa, and many of the Atlanta Braves watched the pregame ceremonies from the top step of the dugout.
”I think it’s fitting that we pay a tribute to him,” said veteran third baseman Chipper Jones, who also wears No. 10. ”It’s part of history and I don’t want to miss it.”
La Russa managed for 33 seasons overall and is third on the career list with 2,728 wins, trailing second-place John McGraw by just 35 victories. Before becoming the 12th number retired by the Cardinals, and second manager along with Whitey Herzog, he said he doesn’t miss the job at all.
Especially the backseat managers.
”I’ve seen a lot of games in spring training,” La Russa said. ”I’m having the best fun second-guessing everybody that I see.”