Defending Tony LaRussa


Each year I am amazed at how many fans insist on finding ways to demonize Tony LaRussa.  A World Series championship, two pennants, eight playoff appearances, and 1318 wins just don’t seem to be enough.  No matter what, there will always be something that a large group of fans will whine about.

Two such complaints that I consistently hear make me laugh— 1) he does gimmicky things as a way to make himself bigger than the game and 2) he hates young players.

Let’s address these:

He’s gimmicky – People have been obsessing over his decision to move the pitcher up to eighth in the order.  I won’t add to the over-analysis on this one.  I honestly don’t know if it makes a difference.  But I will ask this: what’s wrong with doing something different to try to gain an edge?  The beloved Whitey Herzog would place a relief pitcher in the outfield so he could play lefty/righty matchups later in an inning without burning his bullpen.  I suspect that if LaRussa made such a move, people would bellyache about how he weakened the defense.  They would also throw their hands up and give a, “here he goes again,” about his lefty/righty games.   For Herzog it was ok, not for LaRussa.

And to say, as I often hear, that he thinks he’s bigger than the game is just ignorant.  If you have ever heard the man talk about the history of the Cardinals you’ll know how much respect he has for the game.  He will always go out of his way to praise the managers that taught him.  How many times did we hear him defer any and all praise about his success to Red Schoendienst?  He talked at length about wanting to step down before passing Red in win totals.  From where I’m sitting, he seems to love the game too much to try to surpass it in importance.

He can’t handle young players – I won’t pretend that there haven’t been issues here.  The Colby Rasmus situation is concerning.  But should a manager laugh off mistakes from young players?  When the end goal is winning, you have to draw a line.  Why is the number one pick quarterback often left on the bench early in his career?  For every Lebron and Kobe there are Kwame Browns and Jonathan Benders out there.  Young talent doesn’t always mean they are ready to succeed.

LaRussa believes in veteran leadership.  He wants his guys.  So what?  It has clearly worked for him.  Bill Parcells (a noted friend of LaRussa’s) is widely credited for turning around every franchise he ever helmed.  In each and every stop, he brought in his guys.  He brought in people he knew he could trust to do the job.  I wonder if Parcells would be embraced on the Rams’ sideline?

LaRussa detractors point to the reliance on veterans as a way to prove his inability to work with young players.  If that was the case, why has he managed six Rookie of the Years?

Yes, six.  Ron Kittle, Ozzie Guillen, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss, and Albert Pujols all won top rookie honors while playing for LaRussa.  Also, Matt Morris, Rick Ankiel, and Jaime Garcia all finished in the top three in ROY voting.  Let’s not forget that he even went so far as to trust a rookie starting pitcher to serve as his closer in the post season.  And that one seemed to work out for the team and the player.

It’s funny that one of the first things that soured some fans on LaRussa was actually his insistence on replacing a veteran with a younger player.  Think back to 1996 and the Ozzie Smith/Royce Clayton situation.  He actually benched a Hall of Fame player to help the team get younger and more competitive.  Would the villain character that we read about in posts around the web make such a move?

Now that Whitey Herzog has taken his rightful place in Cooperstown, certain fans seem more nostalgic than ever and are getting more vocal in their displeasure with Tony LaRussa.  LaRussa will never be as beloved as the White Rat.  Whitey was a Midwest guy.  He was a guy you would want to have a beer with.  LaRussa is West coast.  He drinks wine (insert snarky DUI comment here).  He’ll never truly fit in and some fans will never forgive him for that.

Me?  I’m happy the Cardinals have LaRussa.  His entire body of work is just too impressive to ignore.  Every year he gets the most out of his team.  They always play, in his words, “a hard nine.”  And bottom line, he wins way more than he loses.

The good ol’ days were great.  What we have right now is better.  Unfortunately we might not realize it until he’s gone.