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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 17, 2011 at 1:04 PM

This could be Tony La Russa’s crowning glory

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(Photo by Associated Press)

A funny thing happened on the way to that Tigers-Brewers World Series that a certain baseball “expert” predicted: the dominating bullpens of the Cardinals and Rangers showed up.

Kudos to Ron Washington for getting his Rangers team to the World Series for the second year in a row — and this time, without Cliff Lee to lean on. But I want to focus here on Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, the magnitude of whose career just continues to grow.

Yes, La Russa can appear smug and condescending. I covered a lot of Oakland A’s baseball during a decade in the Bay Area while La Russa was their manager, so I know he’s not always the warmest person in the world. I think he got flat out-managed by Tommy Lasorda in 1988, and Lou Piniella in 1990, when highly favored — and arguably superior — Oakland teams got flattened in the World Series by the Dodger and Reds, respectively.

That said, I don’t think there’s anyone else alive I’d rather have managing my baseball team. La Russa’s sustained success over a 34-year career is staggering, and I would maintain that getting this Cardinals team to the World Series is his finest achievement.

La Russa’s place in history as one of the top five — maybe top three — managers in history is indisputable. Connie Mack sits atop the list of managerial victories with 3,731 (to go along with 3,948 losses). John McGraw is second at 2,763 (with 1,948 losses). And then there’s La Russa, with a career mark of 2,728-2,365 — just 35 wins shy of the great McGraw. In other words, if La Russa returns next year (he turned 67 on Oct. 4), he’ll move into second-place on the all-time wins list for a manager. And he’s certainly dropping hints that he’ll be back.

This will be La Russa’s sixth World Series, and he has a chance to win his third title (a total surpassed only by Joe McCarthy (7), Casey Stengel (7), Mack (5), Walter Alston (4) and Joe Torre (4). He has been in the postseason a staggering 16 times in 33 full seasons at the helm — practically every other year. With the Cardinals, he has managed 16 seasons now, and gotten them to the playoffs 10 times. You could even make the case that St. Louis, and not the Yankees or Red Sox, has become baseball’s most successful team. Since 2004, when the Cardinals were swept in the World Series by Boston, they have now won three pennants, more than any other team, and will try to join the Red Sox as the only team to win two titles in that span. As I wrote earlier this year, the Cardinals — in a similar market size and with a very comparable payroll revenue stream — are the team for the Mariners to emulate. And to think, there was once some talk, not that long ago, that La Russa might be headed to Seattle.

It’s mind-boggling that La Russa has guided this Cardinals team — 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta on Aug. 25 — to the World Series. That required knocking out a Phillies’ club that was all but anointed the championship after signing Lee, and then shutting down the Brewers’ power-packed lineup. For that, much credit has to go to La Russa’s masterful deployment of the bullpen. He made 28 pitching changes in the six-game NLCS, and essentially manipulated his way to the pennant. As long-time St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote today, “La Russa gets into an NLCS, has shaky starting pitchers, quickly adapts, knows he has favorable bullpen matchups with the Milwaukee hitters, and just rolls out the relievers in a relentless, versatile, hostile procession of heat and guile.”

La Russa’s guile has long been proven, but I’ve always felt his heat was his greatest quality — a palpable intensity that unearths the best from his players. And at age 67, it’s still burning as strong as ever.

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