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In the 2006 NL Division Series against the San Diego Padres, La Russa courted disaster when he pulled ace Chris Carpenter with a 5--1 lead in the seventh inning of Game 1 and when he yanked Jeff Weaver, pitching a two-hitter, after only five innings in Game 2. Both times La Russa threw in his lot with his relief corps--three rookies (Tyler Johnson, Josh Kinney, Adam Wainwright) and a second-year man (Randy Flores). "Take out your ace and go to four rookies? Take out a guy pitching a two-hitter and go to four rookies?" says La Russa, grouping Flores with the others. "Either one of those [games] gets away, and it would be: Tony, you screwed up another series."
But this time it worked. It all worked. His willingness to look past a player's reputation, to play only those he believed gave him the best chance of winning, had earned him the enmity of superstars such as Ozzie Smith, who since La Russa platooned him as a 41-year-old shortstop in 1996 has kept a conspicuous distance from the organization. Concerned about the slump of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, La Russa sat him almost all of Game 2 in the Championship Series against the New York Mets. Rolen would stop talking to La Russa for five months after the benching, but something clicked. Reinserted in the lineup in Game 3 of what would be a seven-game series, Rolen hit .278 for the rest of the NLCS and .421 in the World Series, finishing off the Tigers with a clutch RBI single in the seventh inning of the clinching game. "I've played on better teams, talentwise, but [winning the World Series] ain't about that necessarily," says Rolen, who reached a d�tente with La Russa in February. "I can't tell you what it's about. But it happened."
Players win games, of course. But in his small corner of the 2006 World Series championship, La Russa and Duncan, his longtime pitching consigliere, did an unimpeachable job. "The best part about Tony? He's relentless, and he has no fear," says Leyland, who did not speak to La Russa during the Series by mutual agreement. "And he doesn't let anything slip by. He's the most creative manager I've ever managed against. He'll do things other managers won't. Hit-and-run with Pujols? I doubt many guys would; I can't remember hit-and-running with [Barry] Bonds [while Leyland managed him in Pittsburgh]. If his club isn't hitting, he's not afraid to try stuff to manufacture runs. I think he's an offensive genius."
But it's when La Russa acts like a typical manager, hardwired with the game's byzantine codes of retaliation or conduct, that eyebrows rise the highest. Take the case of Kenny Rogers. Early in Game 2 of the Series, the Tigers' lefty was caught by TV cameras with a dark residue on his pitching hand. Could it have been pine tar, applied to give Rogers a better grip on the ball? The Cardinals coaches mentioned it to the umpiring crew, but any inspection could come only upon a request from La Russa. He never made one, explaining afterward that he was not going to "ask the umpire to go to the mound and undress the pitcher." Yet many wondered why La Russa, in the most competitive of moments, chose not to press a possible advantage. Did he want to avoid embarrassing Leyland?
La Russa snorts at the notion, calls it an attack on his character. Says Leyland, "I'm not gullible enough to believe that a lot of pitchers don't have something that gives them a better grip on the ball, and neither was he. You accept some things as a part of the game. I don't think anybody was cheating. There would be nothing Tony La Russa wouldn't do if he felt the integrity of the game was at stake. He wouldn't give a s--- who the other manager was."
At 12:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 22, a police officer in the Cardinals' spring training town of Jupiter, Fla., approached the driver's-side window of an SUV that was stopped partly through an intersection, under a green light. The car was in drive. According to the police report, La Russa was asleep at the wheel, foot on the brake, and a Breathalyzer administered later gauged his blood-alcohol level at .093, above the state's limit of .08. La Russa admitted to having two glasses of wine at a dinner with friends, which came after an exhausting 48-hour period involving little sleep, a day game after a night game and a quick trip to New York City for a fund-raiser. No matter: To a man obsessed with maintaining an aura of authority, few events could strike a more damaging blow than the out-of-control implication of a drunken-driving arrest. (A June 4 hearing has been set for La Russa, who pleaded not guilty.) And it was only the beginning.
At 12:41 a.m. on Sunday, April 29, Hancock, a 29-year-old middle reliever with a reputation for enjoying the nightlife, crashed into the back of a parked tow truck on Interstate 64 in St. Louis. The police investigation and autopsy report found that he had been drunk, speeding, talking on a cellphone and not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision; he died almost instantly. A glass pipe and 8.5 grams of marijuana were found in the car. In 2002 Cardinals starter Darryl Kile died in a Chicago hotel room because of an undetected coronary artery blockage; in his case, there was no one to blame. But Hancock's death unleashed a storm of recrimination and doubt that promises to linger.
Though the Cardinals banned alcohol from the clubhouse within five days of the tragedy, the city's drinking habits, the team's long-standing relations with the Anheuser-Busch brewery and management's seeming unwillingness to address a player's self-destructive behavior were called into question. But no one came under more fire than La Russa. The Cardinals had not punished him for his DUI arrest in Florida. According to team officials, the extenuating circumstances-- La Russa was exhausted that night, he was not known to be a heavy drinker, and he hadn't had a previous alcohol-related incident--persuaded them to let him off easy. "He's gone through enough punishment," says general manager Walt Jocketty. "You could fine him or suspend him, but I don't think that would be nearly as bad as what he's gone through."
La Russa did himself no favors the day after Hancock's death, when the team was preparing for a game in Milwaukee. Carrying his fungo bat, he threatened to start swinging at reporters who, he'd told his players, "are out there trying to further their own agendas." Even if his grief and his desire to shield Hancock's family are taken into account, it was a highly unprofessional moment. "A mistake," La Russa says now. Seen in tandem with a media blowup just three days earlier-- La Russa was peeved with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for, of all things, a humorous rip of the archrival Cubs--the overreaction seemed the latest sign of a man on the edge.