The former St. Louis Cardinals manager combed his fingers through his thin brown hair and approached a door. Almost seven months had passed since he announced that he was stepping away from a career that produced three World Series championships, two of which came during 16 seasons in St. Louis. He had returned to see his No. 10 retired.
"How are you doing?" La Russa said to a stadium employee.
"Congratulations, Tony," the woman said.
It was a common exchange throughout Friday night for one of the greatest managers in Cardinals history, before the Atlanta Braves beat St. Louis 9-7 in 12 innings. He defined an era like other greats such as Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst before him, like other timeless stars who have made St. Louis one of baseball's gems.
La Russa passed through the door and spoke about the night's meaning. The celebration honored his full personality in the dugout: his careful attention to detail, his sometimes-tedious pitching changes, his steely commitment to win. Few were like him.
The results will likely lead to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame one day. He finished with 2,728 regular-season victories – only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) have more. He appeared in the playoffs 14 times, but his last postseason run was the most memorable of all.
"I miss the relationships a lot," La Russa said. "That's something you can't get past. I was here for 16 years. You can't have better friends who were supportive. … I was done with the dugout. I'm ready for something else."
His return was a reason to remember why he first came in St. Louis. He spoke about the winter after the 1995 season, when his mentor, Sparky Anderson, told him he would enjoy managing in the National League. La Russa had spent the first 17 years of his career with the Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics. He searched for a new home.
One night, then-Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty met La Russa and Dave Duncan, La Russa's pitching coach, for dinner in Oakland. Jocketty entered the meeting with a strategy: He praised the young, gifted pitching talent within his organization as one of his greatest assets.
Duncan was sold. Soon, La Russa was too.
La Russa's choice of No. 10 with the Cardinals is an insight into his drive. He was a student of history: The number became a symbol of his desire to capture the franchise's 10th World Series title, something that had become elusive since winning the ninth in 1982.
Persistence paid off. He did it by beating the Detroit Tigers in five games in 2006.
"You're not going to outwit him," former Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan said. "You're not going to outsmart him. He maintained that attitude … throughout his whole career."
La Russa knew it was his time to leave the game, though. Later Friday, a ceremony on the field to retire his number began. He approached an area in front of home plate and sat in the front row next to Duncan and his wife, Elaine. Mayor Francis Slay awarded him a key to the city.
Former players and colleagues approached a podium and praised his legacy. Former pitcher Tom Seaver said playing for La Russa was one of his greatest joys during a 20-year career. Former pitcher Dave Stewart said La Russa was the best he worked under during his 16 years in the major leagues. Pitcher Adam Wainwright credited La Russa for giving the Cardinals an aggressive attitude. Former manager Joe Torre called La Russa a special individual. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said he admired La Russa's ability never to settle.
"Through your competitive spirit, once 10 (World Series titles for the Cardinals) was achieved, you set your sights on No. 11," DeWitt said to the crowd. "And what a masterful job you did last year to make that happen."
It all was fitting. La Russa was a consistent presence during one of the Cardinals' greatest eras. He was controversial to the opposition, but he demanded the most from anyone who shared a clubhouse with him. A mutual respect was formed.
The law-school graduate began his career with intellect. But with time, he developed baseball genius.
"When I was told by Bill about the number, fair to say I was reluctant," La Russa said to the crowd, shortly after a mural honoring his No. 10 was unveiled on the left-field wall. "Then I got excited."
When it was over, La Russa walked off the field, content to let the game that gave him countless memories carry on. He entered the corridor with his wife by his side and a key to the city in his left hand. He had made the same walk numerous times as a manager, but this time he passed the entrance to the Cardinals clubhouse as a different man.
He entered a lobby and waited for an elevator to lift him to a suite. There were more hugs. A young man nearby said, "Congratulations."
The elevator doors opened. Before stepping inside, La Russa paused to glance at a flat-screen television broadcasting the Cardinals' starting lineup in the top of the first inning. He wanted one more look.
La Russa has become history, but baseball will never leave him.
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