By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Tony La Russa, the winningest manager in franchise history and the most recent Cardinal figure to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, belongs in St. Louis with his old team.
No, not for the reason you’re thinking. But since that elephant is going to hang from a rather frail limb overhead until we address it, let’s get that one out of the way first.
TLR will not, and should not, replace Mike Matheny as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. For one, he’s 73 years old and hasn’t spent significant time in a Major League dugout for the past seven years (six if you count his brief cameo as manager of the 2012 NL All-Star Team). Expecting him to return to the constant grind of managing an MLB team is wishful thinking.
For another, he said he won’t return to managing – anywhere. And why should he? He successfully exited the game on top after winning one of the most dramatic World Series in the history of the game. There’s no way to top that. He has nothing left to prove.
And finally, rehiring La Russa to helm the 2018 Cardinals would be a disastrous step backwards for a front office led by the now-in-control John Mozeliak. Mo inherited a team overshadowed by Tony’s greatness – and largely steered by his towering demeanor – but since the manager rode off into that championship sunset, the then-GM-now-President has made this team his own, for better or worse.
Reintroducing an old lion to the pride now would only invite conflict.
But occasionally consulting that lion…? Now that idea has merit.
The Cardinals face a critical offseason, to be sure, after failing to reach the postseason for the second year in a row. Teams like the Royals and the Pirates may moan and say, “Yeah? So?” But such an outcome is unacceptable in St. Louis, perhaps the mecca of civilized baseball in the sporting world.
To make matters worse, one could say the team continued it’s year-to-year decline, having experienced a mathematical end to their campaign before even the final series of the 2017 season. At least the 2016 squad managed to stave off elimination until the final game.
Mo has his work cut out for him this winter if he hopes to turn this plodding script around. But even all the right transactions won’t get the job done this time.
The latest incarnation of Cardinals baseball demonstratively lost their way. Fielding errors, positioning oddities, base-running blunders, and, yes, managerial head-scratchers littered the Busch Stadium field this summer. Absent from the latest Redbird roster was the much-celebrated “Cardinal Way,” developed for decades by the likes of George Kissell.
The Cardinal Way has become a bit of a joke lately, a phrase either mocked loudly or muttered shamefully, the fans of this once-great team afraid to even associate themselves with the now-unrecognizable concept.
“I always thought that was dumb, anyway,” we might say.
Or, “That wasn’t us! That was the media. Blame them for making something out of nothing!”
Or even, “Everyone has a ‘way’ – ours is nothing special. Don’t put that on me.”
Did you just hear the call of a Cardinal in the distance? Maybe it was a rooster.
Hogwash. All of it.
The Cardinal Way means something. We all feel that way, if we’re honest. We’ve been made to feel awkward and ashamed of it recently – mostly by fans of other teams or those who seek to turn baseball into only numbers and spreadsheets so as to make it’s smoke-filled rooms and underground tunnels somehow more accessible to themselves – but that bitterness and twisting of Kissell’s work is not what we know.
The Cardinal Way stands for aggressive, blue-collar, crisp baseball that prioritizes winning and smart, tough play above all else. That was the point of Kissell’s notes and drills all along, to teach those young boys how to win by working smart and playing hard.
And that’s what this team has lost under Mozeliak and Matheny’s watch. That’s what a presence like Tony La Russa, and those like him (*ahem* – Chris Carpenter?), could help restore.
Mozeliak and company will make several decisions over the next two months aimed at reshaping the roster, remaking the lineup, and refocusing the franchise. Some of those changes will move decidedly modern, like the recent decision to change pitching coaches – and rightly so – but some of those changes must be more visceral than that.
This team has to find it’s guts. It has to stop playing patty cake in the clubhouse and get back to bleeding on the field. It has to uncover the edge this baseball team flouted during the La Russa years and start strutting on the basepaths again.
A mind and spirit like Tony’s can help with that.
Injecting his sense of competitive urgency into a front office at times beleaguered by their own intelligence couldn’t hurt either. How long do you think Peralta would’ve wasted away on the roster if Tony La Russa was ranting and raving, mouth agape at the absurdity of it all, in the conference rooms of the Busch Stadium administrative offices?
Not as long as he did, I’d wager.
He also wouldn’t have put up with such a ridiculous display of intellectually lazy baseball being slathered all over the dirt and grass below the owner’s boxes, either.
And he wouldn’t be silent about any of it along the way.
You know Tony. His emotions are rarely a mystery. Even if he had a desire to keep silent and toe the company line, his soul-piercing glare and acerbic wit would give him away. It would be literally impossible to both employ La Russa in a St. Louis front office and simultaneously do nothing while “his” baseball team imploded in front of him.
Noise would be made. Opinions would be made known.
And that’s what this front office needs.
It probably also wouldn’t hurt to bring on board potentially the only man in the sport that can still get through to Mike Matheny.
I was in the media scrum asking questions and reporting on answers in 2012 when Matheny made his first Winter Warm Up appearance as the new manager of the Cardinals. I remember being struck by the approachability and the receptiveness of this man that would succeed La Russa.
He spoke often and at length about soliciting and listening to the advice of managers before him, and acknowledging a steep learning curve that he would humbly and aggressively tackle.
And I’ve watched that man slowly disappear as he endures the constant attacks, second-guessing, and insult-riddled jeers that are a hallmark of the office he now holds.
It’s hardened him.
Even Mozeliak, at a fairly recent blogger event, contrasted his own “bend in the wind” style with the defensive nature of his manager.
“I wish Mike would learn to let some of that stuff go,” he said (more or less).
He can’t, and the experience has left him harder and more isolated than ever before.
Tony La Russa, Mike’s old manager and possibly biggest supporter, could be just the man to cut through all that callused concrete and reach the more vulnerable skipper inside.
I know, that sounds like so much mush – but I’ve seen it work. Sometimes, all a man needs to grow is the right mix of respect, admiration, and implied authority. For Matheny, no one has a better shot of delivering all three than La Russa.
But it’s more than just TLR’s chance to mentor Matheny, and it’s more than Tony’s ability to add an urgent edge and weighty voice to the brainstorming sessions in the front office.
It’s also about legacy.
I know Tony was in Chicago and Oakland before he put on the birds on the bat, and I know he declined to pick a logo for his HOF plaque.
But Tony La Russa is a Cardinal, just like the red jacket he wears on Opening Day in St. Louis testifies. Even when he was working as a member of the Arizona front office, another team that nearly ended up directly competing with St. Louis for a postseason berth, he still chose the honor of standing on the field at Busch Stadium during opening ceremonies over being with his employer at the start of the season.
He holds records and titles in Cardinals lore unlike any he holds for any other franchise, and his friendships in the St. Louis front office and Bill DeWitt’s ownership group still remain.
St. Louis is where he belongs. Is it really that hard to envision Mozeliak offering him a position as a special assistant to his new GM, Michael Girsch, at a time when the franchise is desperately searching for a way back to their winning identity?
I don’t think it is. And I don’t think it is for the newly promoted President, John Mozeliak.
It’s been six or seven years, now. No one worries about La Russa looming over Matheny’s shoulder anymore.
It’s time to bring TLR home so he can help teach the newest generation of ballplayers in St. Louis what it means to be a Cardinal.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.