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Taking St. Louis Cardinals to World Series proves manager Tony La Russa belongs among all-time greats

A confession:

I have never been a huge Tony La Russa fan. It was never anything personal. Nothing specific, either. He just seemed too intense. Too self-righteous. Or maybe too rigid.

There was also a period when I thought he was terribly overrated. I didn't think he was a poor manager but, for the longest time, it seemed his reputation exceeded his resume.

All of which makes this next sentence sound even weirder:

Tony La Russa is not getting enough credit today.

Now, if you think my earlier perception of La Russa was a bit harsh, I will not argue. And if you believe my latest assessment is too generous, I will understand that, too.

But here's the thing:

I've been staring at a list of all the managers who have won six pennants or more in baseball history. The first thing you'll notice is the list is not long. Only eight names.

Another thing that jumps out is most of these guys were from long-ago eras. Back when there were fewer teams and no extra playoff rounds, so the odds of winning were better.

The clincher, however, is that most of the names on that list are irrevocably linked to a certain team in a certain era. Joe Torre with the Yankees of the late 1990s. Walter Alston with the Dodgers in the '50s and '60s. Connie Mack with the pre-expansion Athletics.

Of all the names on that list, or any other in the past century, only one has won multiple pennants with multiple franchises. Think about that for a moment. Just one manager since 1900 has enjoyed sustained success in two different places.

And that would be a light-hitting shortstop from Tampa named Anthony La Russa.

Not Torre, whose managerial record when not in pinstripes was below .500. Not Casey Stengel, who never finished higher than fifth in his 13 seasons away from the Yankees. Not Miller Huggins, John McGraw or Alston, who won all of their pennants with baseball's royal trinity of the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers.

(You could say Sparky Anderson won World Series titles in both leagues, but his time in Detroit was hardly extraordinary. The Tigers won one pennant in 17 seasons there.)

The point is most legendary managers have had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Take DiMaggio and Mantle away, and Stengel doesn't look so sharp. Take Jeter and Rivera away, and Torre doesn't reach the end of October as often.

Obviously, this isn't a suggestion that La Russa has succeeded without elite players. Among Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols, he has had three of the most dominant hitters of this, or any, generation.

Still, there is a unique heft to La Russa's accomplishments. A preponderance of evidence that his talents have spanned decades and cities unlike any other manager.

Three pennants in Oakland, and now three in St. Louis. Success in the pre- and post-steroid eras. American and National Leagues. Favorites and long shots.

For what La Russa has accomplished in the past eight years in St. Louis has elevated his reputation beyond almost anything he did in his first 25 as a manager.

He has gone from being the law school grad who outsmarted the league to being a guy with a loose clubhouse and a flawed roster.

And that may have done more for his reputation than anything else because the world loves its underdogs and overachievers.

That's the real difference in his career. Not that he hasn't changed or adapted. You don't hold a lineup card for three decades without learning flexibility.

But it's the perception of his accomplishments that is truly interesting. When the Cardinals won it all in 2006, they became the worst regular-season team (83-78) to win the World Series. After losing to inferior teams in 1988 and '90, La Russa had gotten his revenge with one of the most unlikely champions in history.

Now, five years later, La Russa is doing it again.

These Cardinals lost No. 1 starter Adam Wainwright in spring training and were 10½ games out of the wild-card race on Aug. 25. That they even made the postseason was remarkable on its own.

But then St. Louis beat the team with baseball's best record in the Division Series and followed that by beating the league's No. 2 seed in the NLCS.

None of this means La Russa is any smarter at 67 than he was at 57 or even 47. And his ticket to the Hall of Fame was punched long before the first pitch of the 2011 World Series was thrown on Wednesday night.

What his recent success has done is made some people appreciate him even more. And it has made others reassess opinions.

So is he a genius? Is he the best manager of his generation? The best ever?

Heck if I know.

But, all these years later, you have to admit he's pretty darned good.

Taking St. Louis Cardinals to World Series proves manager Tony La Russa belongs among all-time greats 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 9:03pm]
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