Tony La Russa retired as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals around three hours ago, just three days after he won his third World Series championship, and I still haven't wrapped my head around it. That he chose this moment to end his career — and I do definitely believe he has managed his last game — shouldn't be shocking. He is 67 years old and had a legitimate senior moment during the World Series; he spent most of the season seriously ill; his team is in danger of losing the Hall of Famer who just fell in La Russa's lap ten-and-a-half years ago; most of all, his team just won the World Series, and everyone wants to go out on top, even though no one ever does. (Not even Michael Jordan.) But it's still jaw-dropping that he's gone.
La Russa has been managing the Cardinals for sixteen seasons, which, in baseball terms, is several eons; no Yankees manager has ever been in charge as long as La Russa was in charge of the Cardinals. The last Cardinals manager before La Russa was Joe Torre. Joe Torre. He won four World Series, took another team to the playoffs, retired, and took a job inside Major League Baseball in the time that La Russa has been in St. Louis. Tony La Russa has been managing in St. Louis since Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada were Columbus Clippers. When a guy who has been there that long up and leaves, no matter the reasons, it leaves one a bit goggled.
Cardinals fans both adored and despised La Russa the way a child adores and despises a parent. His constant my-way-or-the-highway standoffishness — it was not for nothing that his best friends in sports are Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Bob Knight — drove fan favorites like Brian Jordan, Colby Rasmus, and even Ozzie Smith out of town. And, yes, we Cardinals fans were as exhausted by the pitching changes and David Eckstein–Nick Punto fetishism as you were. But you always felt better having La Russa managing your team; you always knew that Dad had your back. It was comforting, in a way, knowing that the manager of your team so desperately wanted to win that it would drive him insane. He might have been a madman, but he was our madman. And he loved St. Louis in a way only a displaced Californian could; he was beloved (if feared) by the local media — even some out-of-town "local" media — and was the king of the town in a way he never would have been in New York. (Whenever rumors that the Yankees or Mets were interested in La Russa would come up, I'd laugh. I don't know who would be dead first at the introductory press conference, TLR or Mike Lupica, but I know that one of them definitely was not coming out of that room.)
And now he has retired, and, once the shock wears off, I think I'll just be happy for him. The guy takes losses harder than anyone I've ever seen in sports, which is particularly hard because he works in the one sport where losses, even for the greatest teams, are most prevalent. The man was obsessed with control in a sport where he had so little control, and there were times you thought that struggle would someday kill him, right there, in the dugout. If there were ever a year that would have come close to killing La Russa, it was this one, with this crazy Cardinals team; I'm 30 years younger than La Russa, with far less on the line, and I almost had a cardiac incident myself a few times. La Russa appears to have understood that a season like this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience; that it ended with him winning the World Series, a cosmic circumstance that had to be respected, an admission to the baseball heavens that, truly, it just doesn't get any better than this. At last, the man who wanted to grip every baseball game as tightly as he possibly could ... has finally let go. I'm honestly happy for him. I'm lucky I got to watch him on every minute of his journey. And I'm glad he made it through this alive.