My Sportsman: Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa led the underdog Cardinals to the 2011 World Series championship
He has won (and lost) more games than any other coach over the past 60 years
La Russa has overcome several personal problems since winning 2006 title
You might not have known this -- I didn't know it: Tony La Russa has won more games than any coach or manager in any American sport the last 60 years. Now, this is obviously not a fair comparison when it comes to other sports. Baseball teams play so many more games.
Still, the numbers are striking:
Most wins since 1950:
MLB: Tony La Russa, 2,728
College baseball: Augie Garrido, 478.
NFL: Don Shula, 328
College football: Joe Paterno, 409
NBA: Don Nelson, 1,335
College basketball: Mike Krzyzewski, 903
NHL: Scotty Bowman, 1,244
Of course, Tony La Russa has also LOST more games than any coach or manager in American sport the last 60 years. Many more. And that's part of the story too, part of the reason why I think for better and worse, in sickness and in health, Tony La Russa is Sportsman of the Year for 2011. Nobody in sports, and I mean nobody, has won and lost as much as La Russa. Nobody in sports better understands the quirks of sport, the thin line between success and failure, the rhythms of chance.
And in 2011 -- the year that his literary adversary Moneyball was made into a movie -- Tony La Russa led the St. Louis Cardinals on perhaps the most remarkable run to a World Series title in the history of baseball. I've never fully understood why La Russa despises the wonderful book Moneyball as much as he does -- La Russa was an early devotee of computer study in baseball and an early force in using objective data such as statistics to beat the competition. My best bet is the La Russa, as unlikely as it seems based on his gruff nature, is a romantic at heart. He likes the mystery of baseball. He likes the blank spaces. One of his favorite things to do is announce to reporters at spring training that "None of you knows what will happen. I don't know what will happen. That's the beauty of it." I think for La Russa, Moneyball and its plain-spoken attempt to find value by separating myth from what's real, intrudes on that beauty.
Here's another La Russa Moneyball irony: For years and years La Russa found -- like Oakland A's GM Billy Beane of Moneyball fame -- that his s--- didn't work in the playoffs either. He had managed iconic teams, but from his kid manager days in 1979 to his gruff veteran manager days of 2005, his teams won just one World Series. His 99-win White Sox of 1983 barely put up a fight in losing to Baltimore in the ALCS. His powerhouse A's of 1988 were shell shocked by an "I don't believe what I just saw" Kirk Gibson homer, and his powerhouse A's of 1990 were obliterated by Cincinnati in four straight games. His 1996 Cardinals blew a 3-1 lead against Atlanta -- losing those three by scores (14-0, 3-1, 15-0) that suggest utter collapse. His 2004 Cardinals won 105 games and brought La Russa back to the World Series, but St. Louis did not win even one game in that World Series against Boston.
The story changed in 2006, though. That year, the Cardinals won just 83 games and collapsed so thoroughly down the stretch that they came perilously close to blowing a seven-game lead with 11 games to play. But La Russa had come over many years to understand that winning and losing are not opposites but brothers who don't get along. You can't count on momentum. You can't predict luck. Unpredictable things happen. Cardinals' pitchers Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan suddenly found an ability to get people out, a former Japanese League star named So Taguchi hit a big home run, the New York Mets' Carlos Beltran stared at strike three, David Eckstein refused to make outs, Detroit's pitchers forgot how to field, and, like that, the Cardinals team with the 20th best record of La Russa's career won the World Series.
And as crazy as that run was ... it was a Junior Whopper to 2011. La Russa has struggled with life since that 2006 World Series. The very next spring training, he was arrested -- and later pleaded guilty -- to driving under the influence. The embarrassing arrest video because a YouTube sensation. Two years after, he sued Twitter because someone had faked an account under his name. He became embroiled in a nasty public fight with star Scott Rolen, he battled with the media and he made numerous edgy political statements that both bolstered and enraged fans, depending on their own views. His team actually had a losing record the year after winning the World Series, and reached the playoffs just once in four years. That was 2009. They were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series.
And by the middle of 2011, the story was so obvious among baseball fans nobody even talked about it -- La Russa had lost his fastball. The story has been told: On August 24, the Cardinals were 10 games back and looking like a mediocre team. Albert Pujols, in the last year of his contract, was struggling by his standards. Adam Wainwright -- who had a strong Cy Young case in 2009 and 2010 -- was out for the season with an injury. The Cardinals traded away talented centerfielder Colby Rasmus, and the reason was clear: La Russa couldn't get along with him. Everything was tumbling.
Then the craziest things happened. The Cardinals won 23 of their last 32 games. The Braves went in free fall. Madness reigned. The only normalcy on the insane final night of the season -- a night filled with comebacks and collapses and drama that comes right out of the backyard of a 10-year-old kid's imagination -- was that the Cardinals beat the Astros 8-0 to secure their postseason shot.
There have been others who have won by getting out of the way, but Tony La Russa has never been one of those guys. He is the maestro who, for 30-plus years, found himself cursed on hot games in July for making one more pitching change in a game that was already decided.
And now, La Russa was himself, squared. Maybe he knew all along that this was his last time around. Maybe he understood that a chance like this comes around rarely. Whatever, he used his enormous personal hunger to win. He used seven pitchers in the Cardinals' Game 2 victory over Philadelphia in the NLDS. And he used one in their 1-0 victory in Game 5. He was in full fever, monopolizing games, starting runners, shifting the defense, displaying loyalty toward a player one minute and then, in the next minute, making a bold move simply (or so it seemed) for the sake of change. And then he would have another press conference and rant about Moneyball.
The moves didn't always work. The drives didn't always hit the fairway. The now-famous bullpen phone exchange -- where La Russa failed to make what seemed an obvious pitching change because of some apparent miscommunication over the bullpen phone -- could have helped cost the Cardinals the World Series. But this time around, La Russa didn't just have his own intense drive to win. He and the Cardinals also had the one thing, maybe the only thing, that La Russa had never quite been able to master. The Cardinals had good fortune.*
*Or momentum. ... Or heart. ... Or grit. ... Or luck. ... Or the quirks of fate. ... There are a lot of words for it, and we baseball analysts use all of them.
In Game 1 of the World Series against Texas, La Russa used six pitchers, two sacrifice hits and two intentional walks, and the Cardinals won by a run.
In Game 3, Albert Pujols hit three home runs and the Cardinals rolled.
In Game 6 (that crazy, maddening, ridiculous and wonderful game), the Cardinals twice faced their last at-bat down two runs, twice found themselves one out away from elimination, but somehow came back and won 10-9 in 11 innings.
In Game 7, the Cardinals trailed 2-0 after a half inning, but the Rangers never scored again, and the Cardinals rolled to their unlikely title.
A few days later, La Russa retired. He left the game with 400 more wins than Joe Torre, 600 more than Joe McCarthy, 800 more than Casey Stengel. He also left the game with almost 400 more losses than Torre, 500 more losses than Stengel and 1,000 more losses than McCarthy. He had managed more games than anyone except Connie Mack, and he had done it in three remarkably different cities with different kinds of fans and different ownership strategies. He had not only been a survivor, he had marked his time in baseball. And he left after his most astounding triumph.
Yes, Tony La Russa retired on top, and he retired big, and he retired with Moneyball still playing in theaters. And while there are many who say he will be back, I kind of doubt it. In many ways, his retirement may have ended an era. Baseball has largely turned managers into middle-managers. The stars have become the general managers, the Theo Epsteins, the Brian Cashmans and (yes) the Billy Beanes, who can make trades, and work out deals and find undervalued players and win the draft.
Tony La Russa comes from another time, when men with outsized egos and the intuition of generals roamed the dugouts and kicked dirt on the field. He comes from a time of Earl Weaver and Billy Martin, Tommy Lasorda and Whitey Herzog, and there were unquestionably times in the last few years when he seemed like a dinosaur in today's Moneyball world. Maybe he was a dinosaur. But for a couple of months anyway, a dinosaur ruled the earth.