Also in this column: La Russa's decision on Rogers Carlos Delgado -- deserving winner On new labor deal Girardi back to the bench? More news and notes
ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has come under fire a lot lately for a guy who's within two games of pulling off a miracle. Beyond those who said he didn't go hard enough after Kenny Rogers, there was that late-season baloney about how La Russa's teams play tight in tight spots. As La Russa said the other day regarding that accusation, "That's bull.'' And it was.
La Russa's 83-win Cardinals -- who he said, if anything, "got too comfortable, too complacent,'' during their end-of-the-year funk -- now stand two victories from becoming the team with the worst record over 162 games ever to win a World Series after their 5-0 victory Tuesday night over Detroit.
"Rather than getting too tight, we took it for granted," La Russa said. "I blame myself for not being able to scare 'em enough.''
La Russa's taken hits from everywhere, including his own clubhouse, where Scott Rolen questioned his benching earlier in the postseason. The media and fans also have criticized La Russa, the most recent hits coming when he was ripped for becoming the millionth manager not to aggressively pursue a suspected cheater. "Unless someone calls you a rotten alcoholic wife beater, you learn not to take it personally,'' La Russa said.
Perhaps this postseason will be seen as vindication for LaRussa, a terrific manager whose one true flaw from here has been excessive loyalty in his overzealous defense of Mark McGwire. Some folks are annoyed by what they see as arrogance -- and maybe one or two even in his own clubhouse see it, too (Rolen comes to mind) -- but La Russa's surely a genius at playing percentages and putting his players in position to win.
"Tony's had a Hall-of-Fame career and many great years. But this may be one of the best he's had, especially considering the way he's managed in the postseason,'' Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. "The way he's handled the pitching, the bullpen, game situations ... that's why he's one of the best of alltime.''
Hardly anybody saw this sort of postseason coming from the Cardinals. But La Russa hasn't seemed surprised.
"We felt we'd be a dangerous club,'' he said. "We have some holes, some warts. But we have some real pluses.''
It's just like La Russa to defend Jim Leyland's boneheaded (my word) decision to pitch to Albert Pujols with a base open in Game 1 Besides the fact La Russa would never criticize even an opposing manager he disliked much less his buddy Leyland, LaRussa probably wouldn't mind encouraging Leyland to keep doing it. But the fact is, La Russa never would do something so foolhardy.
He's easily been the best manager of this postseason, even better than his buddy. La Russa was right to hold back Chris Carpenter for the playoffs even though they hadn't clinched going into the season finale. Right to go with Anthony Reyes over Jason Marquis. Right to employ Chris Duncan as a pinch hitter (although he gave an assist to daddy Dave Duncan on that one) against Pedro Feliciano. Right at every turn so far during the World Series, which may turn out as surprising as all the preceding rounds.
His Cards blew away the Padres, beat the Mets in a Game 7 on the Mets' home turf and are two home victories from proving all the experts wrong (this one included), including the experts who said his teams played tight in tight spots.
La Russa's toughest call
As one of Kenny Rogers' friends told him, "You sure know how to make people forget the cameraman incident.''
Give him this, Rogers, author of smudge-gate, has added intrigue to the least-watched World Series maybe ever. Rogers came as close to being caught red-handed as possible. He has also put the spotlight on La Russa, who complained about the smudge detected by Fox on Rogers' left hand, though apparently not loudly enough for some.
I can see that, but only to a degree.
Here's why Cardinals fans were lamenting a lost opportunity. Had La Russa gone a step further and requested that Rogers be checked in the first inning, after Cardinals players alerted La Russa to the smudge, Rogers could have been subject to ejection from the game and dismissal from the World Series and put La Russa's team in the cat-bird seat, so to speak. Of course, this assumes they get Rogers, who created headlines last year by attacking a cameraman; while there was video evidence in this case, very few pitchers have ever been caught. Also, if the check comes up empty, Rogers is pretty well set to do as he pleases for the evening.
It's possible that without Rogers, the Tigers might have been at a considerable disadvantage. Although in this postseason, nothing is going as planned, and perhaps the Tigers would have rallied around their "fallen'' yet tainted hero.
In a perfect world, La Russa would have acted more aggressively and recommended they check Rogers more carefully rather than instruct Rogers to wipe his hands. But La Russa was in a tough spot here. Some of it is related to baseball's code, some of it possibly to his own team and the history of his teams. For La Russa to insist they check Rogers, he better be pretty sure his own team has clean hands.
The theory has been advanced by some baseball people -- including folks I talked to yesterday -- that La Russa didn't go for the jugular because of his friendship with Leyland. Knowing La Russa's competitiveness, I find that hard to believe. However, it's not hard to imagine that La Russa could have had concerns about his own team. What if one or more if his own pitchers used pine tar, as it appears Rogers did?
Either way, La Russa is risking upsetting some folks on his own team. By not insisting that the umpires check Rogers and only asking that he wipe off the material, he risked upsetting his hitters, who had reported "funny'' movement on Rogers' pitches.
La Russa probably didn't consider the history of his teams. But I would have found it hypocritical of La Russa to make a federal case out of a little pine tar (or even a lot of pine tar, as appeared to be the case here) considering the way he has consistently defended McGwire in the face of mounting evidence of a more serious breech of honor, steroid abuse. I am sure McGwire's situation didn't enter into La Russa's thinking. But by not complaining too loudly about Rogers, he is at least being consistent.