In recent days, the volume of articles in the mainstream media speculating about the future of Tony La Russa's future as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals has increased substantially.
As a result, if our message board traffic is any indication, a growing number of the members of The Cardinal Nation seem unsettled. A season-worst six-game losing streak that has put the team's improbable 2007 National League Central Division title run on life support surely hasn't helped matters.
Writers ask the manager the same questions about his plans over and over. He answers time and time again, sometimes more patiently than others, but usually quite consistently. I know. I've been there.
It doesn't end with that, though. Words are extracted from his standard speech and analyzed under a microscope. People strain to interpret the deep meanings between the lines. A by-product is that firm impressions are established about something which is intended to be unclear by design.
It is boring to say, but there isn't really anything of substance that is new to report here.
He's Been Here
Before - La Russa
has entered the off-season without a contract for the next year at least twice
previously in his 12 seasons as manager in
· He Can Return if He Wants – Tony still has the same long-standing assurance from ownership and his general manager that he can return in 2008 if he wants to.
· Turmoil Goes with the Territory - While the level of adversity he and his Cardinals team have faced this season has been high, the death of Darryl Kile in 2002 and the bullpen collapse in 2003 were hardly walks in the park, either.
· Sticking to His Plans - La Russa said that he will decide his future plans after the season, just as he has always done before. An early departure announcement would only have led to a major distraction all season long.
Why will so many not accept that?
During most of 2007, the curious and the unsettled have been pushing. As early as this May, one well-known columnist urged La Russa to divulge his future plans in part because he believed Cardinals fans were owed an immediate answer.
I see it differently. As I said then, I believe that La Russa has earned the right to make his career decisions on his own terms, even if he hasn't necessarily earned (or maintained) the respect of the impatient.
In some "expert" analyses of the Cardinals situation, the fate of La Russa and his boss, general manager Walt Jocketty are considered as one, blended together in some kind of indistinguishable gumbo.
That occurs despite the fact that unlike his field manager, Jocketty is under contract with the Cardinals for 2008. Even so, the flurry of activity earlier this season regarding the GM's future, the "Walt is leaving" talk, seems to have died down recently.
Plenty of others, including many who should know better, seem to look at the GM in a strangely benevolent manner, giving him a free pass when discussions erupt over where changes might be needed in the Cardinals organization.
Take this example, which is intended to represent the thinking of one vocal contingent of fans: "I hope Jocketty stays as he has done a good job. But, La Russa does not play kids and favors veterans. He is not the right man to manage a changing roster going forward. I would like to see Tony go."
These people seem to apply an inordinate amount of blame to La Russa for the men on the Cardinals' roster as well as the ones who are not. For example, "So and so was signed because Tony only wants veterans or so and so didn't get called up because La Russa won't play kids", they exclaim with naïve certainty.
This kind of logic amazes me due to
its clear implication is that the GM is simply a puppet for the wishes of the
manager. That is both incredibly insulting to Jocketty, recognized as one of the
best in the game, and is simply wrong. Instead of building up the GM, this kind
of thinking unfairly and inaccurately knocks him down.
The reality is that while the two do talk daily, there is no confusion about their respective roles. Simply put, Jocketty's job is to assemble the team and La Russa's is to manage it. I have personally discussed this (subscriber-only article) with each of them so I am not speculating on their relationship.
Simply put, if a fan has an issue with the players assembled on the roster, the questions have to begin with Jocketty, not La Russa. On the other hand, if you don't like the line-up on any given day, trash Tony.
Yet, when things go well, Jocketty seems to receive the credit. Conversely when problems occur, some think it either might be because the manager wanted certain players (or ran others off) or it is the ownership tying the GMs' hands due to their alleged cheapness. The validity of neither has been proven.
La Russa gets the rap for not playing youngsters and preferring veterans, despite strong recent evidence to the contrary, and ownership continues to increase payroll, keeping the Cardinals consistently in the top ten of all Major League teams.
More so than most other clubs I have observed, the philosophy of the organization is agreed-upon and executed consistently from top to bottom. Until recently, a cornerstone of that approach was to use minor leaguers as trade bait to improve the Major League club.
Never absolute, that plan seems to have been moderated in recent years as top prospects like Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes were kept instead of dealt. Still, the questions remain over whether La Russa has the stomach to work youngsters into his lineup in the upcoming seasons, as if the concept is somehow foreign to him.
Jocketty was recently quoted as saying that he believes that La Russa should be a 2007 NL Manager of the Year Award candidate. I happen to agree with him. While I don't applaud some of the off-the-field problems this season, quite amazingly La Russa has kept his constantly-evolving team in the hunt through a morass of injuries and ineffectiveness.
This really hit home for me earlier this week as I listened to the Cincinnati Reds television broadcast team. They looked at the two teams competing in front of them on the field, the Cardinals and Reds, and wondered aloud why the Cards were not in the lower tier of the division alongside the Reds, sitting 15 games under .500 at that juncture.
Like him or hate him, La Russa deserves significant credit for his team of wounded and walking wounded remaining in contention here into the second half of September. Sure the Division is weak, but the fact is that the Cardinals are still in it, while the Reds, who play a similar schedule, never were.
La Russa has said he wants to manage four more seasons. The question on the minds of so many Cardinals fans seems to be, "Should he stay or should he go?"
My opinion doesn't matter one iota and sorry, neither does yours. La Russa will make his decision when he is ready using his own process.
If he wants to come back to
On the other hand, if La Russa leaves, I will respect that, too. Privately, he might conclude that his approach has grown stale with his players or he disagrees with ownership and Jocketty on the future direction of the team. But even if so, I strongly doubt that he would burn his bridges by admitting any of that publicly.
As a result, even when La Russa does finally leave, whether this fall or sometime in the future, the rampant speculation will probably continue as to exactly why. La Russa holding his cards close to his vest seems fair to me. When all is said and done, his career is his business, not ours.
Though I cannot prove it short of conducting a truly valid, scientific poll, I suspect the silent majority of Cardinals fans may still want La Russa as the team's manager. The vocal minority who would like to color him gone may not appreciate the value of the future Hall-of-Fame skipper until it is too late.
Could the Cardinals next manager, whenever he arrives, make us forget La Russa? Maybe no and maybe yes, but even if so, it will take a long time to get there – to equal the consistent high level of baseball this administration has given fans, most recently the six playoff campaigns so far this decade.
Tony La Russa's record should be doing all the talking.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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