I was talking with Tommy Craggs of Deadspin over the weekend about how, if the Cardinals were to win the World Series this week, it would go down as manager Tony La Russa's crowning achievement, the high point of his 35-year career, the one that cements his legend forever. This bothered Tommy, like it bothers many other smart baseball fans, and I understand why: Today's analytic baseball world reveres the cult of the general manager, with the manager considered an ineffectual pencil pusher, as immortalized by Philip Seymour Hoffman as impotent Art Howe in Moneyball. (And oh, Mets fans, how nice it is to see Art Howe mocked so mercilessly, isn't it?) A guy like La Russa, in today's game, is thought of as a cranky madman obsessively putting his imprint on a game that no longer believes itself to need the manager's help: It is La Russa's curse, really, to be a control freak in the sport in which he has the least control.
Sure, as a Cardinals fan, I can say that La Russa has driven me pretty nuts over the years. Heck, I was close to driving to St. Louis and strangling the guy just two months ago. This is probably normal: La Russa has managed the Cardinals for sixteen years —sixteen years: He has been managing the Cardinals since Derek Jeter's first full season in the majors — and when someone has been in charge for that long, it's like a marriage. He drives you crazy half the time, doing the same things he always does in the most irritating ways, but, you know what, he's our madman. And when it works, when everything's perfect, you remember why you fell in love in the first place.
And boy, right now, is everything ever working.
The Cardinals beat the Rangers 3-2 last night in Game 1 of the World Series, and, once again, La Russa was on fire. Tony is on one of his all-time hot streaks right now — the last one I remember like this was the 2006 World Series, actually, when he essentially won a championship with Josh Kinney, Tyler Johnson, Chris Duncan, and four slices of David Eckstein gristle — and right now, everything he touches is gold. It's hardly a chess game or anything, but this is in every way a La Russa series. It all worked last night, from pinch-hitting Allen Craig for a still-effective Chris Carpenter to using left-hander Scrabble Rzepczynski to bait Rangers manager Ron Washington into batting two of his worst hitters with the game on the line. The Cardinals had to win last night, and La Russa didn't make it happen — his players did that, as always — but he'll receive all the credit, because he's Tony La Russa and because he absolutely cannot be stopped right now. To paraphrase Lieutenant Aldo Raine, this'll be the one they remember him by.
What's perhaps most surprising to longtime La Russa observers is how much fun he seems to be having. He's terrifyingly intense in the dugout, of course — there are times I think he should be wearing one of those collars they give dogs so they won't bite their stitches — but all told, this is as plucky, mild, and fun as Tony gets. The Cardinals are on a once-in-several-lifetimes run right now, and even La Russa can't help but be a little giddy about it. To quote another longtime La Russa watcher:
Right now, these guys don’t even think about losing a game, much less a series. And with streaks like this, everybody loosens up and really ridiculous shit starts to happen- the team has a lucky squirrel, a lucky turtle, a lucky moth, a lucky talisman (That LaRussa got from Santana! After playing percussion on stage with him! See, ridiculous!), and a lucky saying (Happy Flight!), all of which Tony discussed in an interview after the Game 5 NLDS win that made him sound like he was batshit crazy. Which he is, I suppose.
He really is. He's absolutely crazy. The reason I've always loved La Russa is because he's the only person I know who handles Cardinals losses worse than I do, the only person who looks more miserable during a close, important game than I do. He still does look like that, of course. But he's on the best roll of his life right now. The odds may turn on him, at the worst possible time, at some point this series; there's only one game down, after all. Right now, though, I'm just giddy to be along for the ride. This is La Russa's Pietà, for better or for worse for the rest of baseball. This'll be the one they remember him by.