Tony La Russa Must Go

Not so fast, you have been lured into this article under false pretenses.  Intentionally.  Let me explain.

In 1977, Ken Olson, chief executive officer of the second largest computer company in the world, said, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”


In 1981, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame is claimed to have said, “640k of memory should be enough for anybody.”

Their latest operating system takes at least 1GB to even run, and 4GB to run well.  Oops.

And finally, after winning the 1993 Super Bowl, Jerry Jones said about his head coach, Barry Switzer, “Any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls.”  Jones has spent the last 18 years trying to find one of those 500.  Unsuccessfully.

To be fair to Mr. Jones, that is not the dumbest thing he said.  He once said that Troy Aikmen is looking good in the shower when trying to tell the media that the Cowboys quarterback was still not ready to play in a game. Perhaps nuance should be left to those who can speak with …… well …… nuance.

The La Russa Era

In the 16 years that Tony La Russa has managed the St. Louis Cardinals, he was won 1,374 of the 2,535 games they have played.  That’s a winning percentage of .540, or let’s call it an average of 87 wins per season.   In those 16 years, the Cardinals have had a losing record exactly three times: 1997, 1999 and 2007.   Two of them were during the rebuilding Mark McGwire era and the last was a season where Aaron Miles had more appearances and a better WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) than Chris Carpenter.

To be fair, there have been a few years where La Russa’s Cardinals barely cleared the .500 level, but then again, there was a 6 year period (MV3 era) when his team won 93 or more five times.

The point to this background is that all of this success might have lulled us into a false set of expectations, much like Jerry Jones with all of his team’s success in the early 90s.   Just put them in a uniform and go out and win.

Well, it’s not quite that simple.  Some of us still remember vividly what it was like to be a Cardinals fan in the dark times, and some of those were not so long ago.   It was not a matter of talent either, as we shall soon see.

The Red Schoendienst Era

Johnny Keane led a miraculous turnaround in 1964, and his Cardinals went on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series.   Upon closer inspection, that turnaround was not as miraculous has some of the history books suggest.  In fact, Keane’s 1963 Cardinals might have been the better team, but they just had the misfortune of being that in the same year as one of the Dodgers greatest, and just fell short.

In a surprise turn of events following the World Series, Keane left the Cardinals to go manage (unsuccessfully) the Yankees.  Left with a gigantic void to full, owner Gussie Busch chose local hero Red Schoendienst over the more qualified Leo Durocher to manage the club.   In the beginning, it did not go so well.   But with a hometown favorite at the helm, the local press did give the team a short pass, and allowed them to retool for the future.

Red’s 1965 team was nearly identical to the one what won it all in 1964.  What went wrong ?  It certainly wasn’t a talent issue.  Bob Gibson won 20 games for the first time in his career.  Newcomer Hal Woodeshick was lights out at the end of the game, in this new role they called the closer.

There wasn’t a single problem, but a confluence of bad things.

Age had crept into the dugout.  Dick Groat and Ken Boyer were starting that period at the end of their career where their performance starts tailing off.  Had the Cardinals been able to get enough runners on base ahead of them, perhaps the outcome would have been different.  The same is true for Bill White, but he still had some good years ahead of him.

Injuries played another role.  Julian Javier missed most of the season with a badly broken hand, resulting from a pitchers retaliation.  Jerry Buchek, Dal Maxvill and Phil Gagliano proved to be an poor platoon for the inured start second baseman.

And finally, the lefties Curt Simmons and Ray Sadecki.   The veteran and the youngster each turned in awful seasons, perhaps in large part to a depleted middle infield.  But where they had been brilliant the year before, their records were nearly mirror images of that in 1965.

Through all of this, Red still managed to get the team close to .500.

The 1966 team was much the same.  Javier was struggling, not quite recovered from being hit by that pitch in 1965.  A mid-season trade solved many of the problems, but it came just a bit too late to salvage the 1966 season.

Then came 1967, and the run to the World Series.   It was Bob Howsam’s trade for Roger Maris that made the difference, but Red Schoendienst should be given a lot of credit for holding that team together during the unbelievable adversity that the team would face.  A different manager might not have let Orlando Cepeda stand on top of his trunk and yell out “viva el birdos”.  Another manager might not have turned over Bob Gibson’s spot in the rotation to Nelson Briles, and unproven and at that point, a disappointing young pitcher.  And another manager might not have continued to run an aging Roger Maris out to right field when he had a young superstar in Bobby Tolan on the bench.

Two trips to the World Series, and two more seasons when the Cardinals were at least in contention gave fans something to cheer about.   But then it all fell apart – and none of it was Red’s fault.

The turning point may have been Curt Flood’s short holdout in 1969, because that one even seemed to turn Gussie Busch against some of the players.   That led to a number of apocalyptic trades, starting with Floods prior to the 1970 season.  Steve Carlton, Mike Torrez and Jerry Ruess would follow that, perhaps Richie Allen’s sudden departure after an excellent season in St. Louis.   And don’t forget a young left handed power hitter named Jose Cruz, who was given away to the Houston Astros.   These trades made the Cardinals look more like the Island of Misfit Toys than a professional baseball team.

The result was a club that slid from being a champion to one that was hardly relevant.  Once Bob Gibson’s career was over, and that came quickly, there was little for Cardinals fans to cheer about.

But it was not a question of talent, the Cardinals had that.  Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Garry Templeton, Bake McBride, Reggie Smith, Bob Forsch, John Denny, Lou Brock, Pete Vukovich, Joe Torre – that is enough talent to win, isn’t it ?  One of these teams, with many of these players listed, lost 93 games for Vern Rapp.  Brutal times indeed.

Whitey Herzog Era

We know about the Whitey Herzog era.  He came into town, shuffled the Cards and immediately dealt a Royal Flush, and all was well.   Well, close.

The team was still under strict salary controls, and free agency was starting to take a toll.   But Herzog got the most out of his players, and if they stayed relatively healthy, post-season play was all but assured.

So what happened ?

Injuries, and more meddling by the cost control bean counters and lawyers didn’t allow Herzog to put a competitive team on the field.  As soon as a player had earned their big pay day, they were shipped out of town, or allowed to leave via free agency.  Tommy Herr, Vince Coleman and Jack Clark were just a few examples.   In their place, the team acquired scrappy bargains, such as Milt Thompson, Gregg Jefferies and Felix Jose.

Joe Torre era

Cardinals fans that pull their hair out every time Tony La Russa goes to the mount to make a pitching change have forgotten, or don’t know about Joe Torre, who would sit in the dugout, night after night, watching Jose DeLeon fall apart in the 7th inning.   It was like clockwork – around the 70th pitch, DeLeon would go from Don Drysdale to Don Knotts.   And Torre was caught off guard every night.   DeLeon would pitch one inning to many, and the Cardinals lost games they didn’t need to.

The best example of this came on July 18, 1994 in a game against the Houston Astros.  Behind Allen Watson, the Cardinals had a huge 11-0 lead.   They lost it in the 6th inning, the single worst inning I have ever listened to on the radio.   Watson and three relievers allowed 16 men to come to the plate, and 11 of them scored.   What is lost in history of this game is that Watson had been shaky in the two previous innings, allowing 2 runs in each of those.  Hello Joe – this game isn’t going well.  A lineup consisting of Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey, Todd Zeile, Ozzie Smith, Mark Whitten, Gregg Jefferies, Geronimo Pena and Tom Pagnozzi scored just one more run, and only because Mark Whitten took “stole” base with 2 outs in the ninth inning a 15-11 game.

This one game sums up my memories of the Torre era – complete and utter futility.   Nobody wants to see baseball like this, and it wasn’t just a one time occurance.   Torre would last the remainder of the season, and two months into the next.

Fortunately the dark era was about to come to an end.

What about Tony ?

Since La Russa’s arrival in St. Louis, the Cardinals have been a very competitive team.   Itis hard to put that into a historical context because the three divisional arrangement provides more playoff spots (4) than in Red’s (1 or 2) or Torre’s (2) era.  Even with those differences in mind, La Russa’s teams following the 1999 rebuild have been in the playoff hunt late in the season, something that you can’t say about Torre’s teams, or Reds (even though we should blame Gussie, and not Red).

There is a tradition of winning in St. Louis in the last decade and a half that we have never seen consistently in franchise history.  That is not an accident, nor is it a case of talent alone.   Those 70s teams had some ferocious talent, and the 90s teams had enough star players to do better than they did.  Perhaps it is time to give some credit to the owner’s group for providing the financial resources, the front offices of both Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak’s tenure, and the field staff of Tony La Russa.

For those who hope for La Russa’s departure now, or at the end of the season, be careful for what you wish for.  The alternative is not always better.  Those of us who lived through the Torre years and those 70s teams may not be so quick to run La Russa out of town.  We remember the last two times a winning manager left, and it wasn’t pretty.

It would be a shame if “Tony La Russa must go” joins the list of unfortunate quotes at the beginning of this article.

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3 Responses to Tony La Russa Must Go

  1. William says:

    Excellent thought process here, Bob. My dislike for the man has never gotten in the way of my belief in the kind of manager he is. It’s true that sometimes he wins in spite of himself. But the guy has a track record that few could ever argue with. If the Cardinals don’t get to the playoffs this year, what you are probably seeing is a restless fandom that is accustomed to being in the party (as you mention). If the Cardinals end up on the outside looking in, it will be in large part due to some critical errors in team construction and no so much that LaRussa didn’t get the most he could out of his players. Plus, the season still has a lot of legs left. Don’t count the man out.


  2. oates03 says:

    So let’s say he leaves, what is needed to keep a balance, compared to soon and gloom scenario? Is it the responsibility of the manager to win a championship or build a team that could win and at least be balanced without him?


  3. Jeff Logullo says:

    “It was like clockwork – around the 70th pitch, DeLeon would go from Don Drysdale to Don Knotts.”

    That line alone is enough to get me to renew my subscription to your blog 🙂


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