La Russa going out on his terms

All during the World Series, Tony La Russa seemed unusually serene. FOX’s Tim McCarver actually mentioned that to him during one of our pregame meetings. La Russa sort of shrugged, said he felt no different.

But something was different. La Russa already had made his decision, had made it nearly two months ago. He was going to retire, not for one reason, but as he said Monday, for eight to 10 reasons. Looking back now, it all makes sense.

La Russa was indeed serene during the Series, often downright hilarious during his news conferences. I expected him to come out firing the day after his botched phone calls to the bullpen in Game 5, attacking the media for questioning the veracity of his story. Instead, he was humble, answering every question, accepting responsibility.

Not that La Russa ran from his mistakes — he beat himself up after the Cardinals failed to properly defend Ian Kinsler’s pivotal stolen base in Game 2, taking the blame for something that few would have pinned on him. Still, this was a different Tony. Reporters noted it, debated it — but couldn’t quite figure out why.

Now we know.

La Russa, 67, announced his retirement Monday. He had informed the team’s management in late August that he was strongly considering stepping down. True to form, he never wavered and planned to end his career even if the Cardinals had not won the World Series

I don’t know if I have met a more competitive man — and that’s saying something in a sport full of Type-A workaholics. When you asked La Russa before a game how he was doing, he always had the same response — “Ask me at 10:30,” or whatever time it would be three hours after the first pitch. His days were defined, quite literally, by whether his team won or lost.

He drove opponents crazy with his sanctimonious side, drove even his own fans crazy with some of his in-game strategy. But the thing I loved about La Russa — the thing that most defined him — is that he always got the most out of his teams. The 2011 Cardinals, underdogs from the day they lost ace right-hander Adam Wainwright early in spring training, were the ultimate La Russa creation.

This is a manager who practically invented specialized bullpens, a manager who loved extra-base power in the No. 2 hole, a manager who, for a time, fancied pitchers batting eighth. La Russa always had a detailed answer for whatever questions you asked him. That, more than anything, is why the Cardinals’ bullpen miscues in Game 5 were so shocking.

Before the postgame news conference began, my colleague Jon Paul Morosi expressed disbelief that La Russa had not lifted left-hander Marc Rzepczynski in favor of a right-right matchup between Jason Motte and Mike Napoli at the game’s pivotal moment. I was hesitant to pass judgment.

I told J.P., “Hold on, let’s see what Tony says.” I knew La Russa was OK with Rzepczynski against certain right-handed hitters. I also sensed, from more than two decades of covering La Russa, that there had to be a reason.

Well, it turned out that there was no reason, at least not a strategic one. La Russa indeed wanted Motte but said the crowd in Texas was so loud that bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist did not hear him ask for Motte over the bullpen phone. The story seemed so preposterous that some speculated La Russa was affected by the medication he was taking for shingles. But Monday, La Russa said his health was not a major factor in his retirement.

“Less than you think,” he said. “I was asked enough about what you go through, whether it sapped my energy . . . It was just an aggravation . . . It never affected the job. Once I started feeling no pain (because of the medication), I felt the same as ever physically. I feel great, ready to do whatever. It was a health thing that had no bearing on the future.”

La Russa also said he was not influenced by the possibility of passing John McGraw for second in wins on the all-time managerial list. La Russa is only 35 victories shy of McGraw and surely next season would have moved into second place, behind only Connie Mack.

Who cares?

La Russa won three American League titles and one World Series with the Athletics, three NL titles and two World Series with the Cardinals. His legacy is secure. He is going to the Hall of Fame.

“For people close to me, it’s a factor,” La Russa said of the McGraw mark, nodding to his wife, Elaine. “I’m aware of it. I’m aware of the history of the game. But I would not be happy with myself if the reason I came back was to move up on one spot. That isn’t why you manage. That isn’t why I started.”

He always had the strongest sense of how the game should be managed, how it should be played. His critics contend he willfully overlooked his players’ use of steroids in both Oakland and St. Louis. It is difficult to defend La Russa in that area. But he is hardly the only one in baseball who failed to react properly, reporters included.

I loved covering the guy. He always competed, always thought ahead, always had a point of view. I frankly don’t know how La Russa will exist without those three hours in the dugout every night. But his last 10:30 was his best 10:30. Now, and forever, he is a champion.