The subject of Tony La Russa’s contract status is
currently front and center in terms of focus by many fans of the St. Louis
Cardinals. In his 14 years at the field boss of the club, the manager’s teams
have reached the post-season eight times, winning two NL pennants and a World
Despite the success, La Russa
remains a polarizing figure. Some don’t like his frequent lineup changes, others
his perceived dislike of younger players, others his situational use of
relievers and yet others his intensity and perceived
Since joining St. Louis from Oakland prior to the 1996 season, La Russa’s
contract has come up for renewal on a half-dozen different occasions. He
consistently waited until one deal concluded to consider another.
The manager always said
essentially the same thing. La Russa needed to assess whether his players were
still responding to his leadership, whether he had the desire to continue
and whether he had the support of ownership.
Each time, La Russa checked off
all three boxes and inked a new deal.
Despite what I recently read on a
national website that La Russa has been managing under a series of one-year
contracts, the opposite is actually true. Since at least 1988, in his second
full season in Oakland, the skipper has been under either two
or three-year deals the entire time.
Details surrounding each of La
Russa’s previous Cardinals contracts follow.
1996-1997. After 9 ½ years with Oakland that
included four division titles, three American League pennants and one world
championship, La Russa decided to leave the A’s following the 1995 season. Owner
Walter Haas had passed away and the
A’s were heading into a rebuilding phase that would compromise La Russa’s desire
to field a competitive club.
He joined the Cardinals on a
two-year deal at the invitation of general manager Walt Jocketty, with whom he had worked
with the A’s from 1986 until 1993. Despite ongoing tension with aging superstar
Ozzie Smith, La Russa’s 1996 club
finished in first place, earning the organization’s first post-season berth in
1998-1999. Following the acquisition of La Russa’s
former star Mark McGwire from
through the 1997 season, the slugger was warmly embraced by the city and fans.
In September, 1997, McGwire signed a new three-year contract with the Cardinals.
Less than two weeks later, La Russa followed with a new two-year extension
covering the 1998 and 1999 seasons.
2000-2001. The Cardinals had posted a losing record
of 234-251 during La Russa’s first three years, yet ownership put a two-year
extension on the table prior to his fourth season, 1999. The manager did not
respond during a campaign in which he suffered through an ulcer and the second
losing year in those initial four. Only following the disappointing 1999 season
did the club announce that La Russa had signed the contract
2002-2004. Though St. Louis made the post-season in both 2000 and
2001, the McGwire era ended as the slugger’s knees would take no more. La Russa,
under fire from fans and the local media, surprised virtually everyone by
agreeing to terms on his first three-year contract with St. Louis. The deal, set
in October, 2001, was expected to have been two years in duration like his first
2005-2007. La Russa’s offer to resign after the
trying 2002 season despite having two years remaining on his contract was long
forgotten by the winter of 2004-2005. Fresher on everyone’s mind was the
four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox over the Cardinals in the 2004 World
Series. The manager’s 5-12 game record in October classics with eight straight
losses didn’t seem to matter, as he was asked back on another three-year deal.
2008-2009. Once again, local media pressure was
intense during the 2007 season for La Russa to declare his future intentions.
Despite coming off a World Series win, there were accusations that the manager
could lose control of the clubhouse otherwise and the most tired line of all was
trotted out there, “the fans have a right to know”.
La Russa never wavered, nor should
he. Even his harshest critics would have to admit that the skipper puts his all
into his work, so the club was getting what they paid for. Why shouldn’t his
personal plans remain private until he and the organization chose to make them
Waiting proved wise as it allowed
La Russa to better understand the organization’s future direction following the
October, 2007 firing of his long-time boss Jocketty. Elements of the
organizational tension remained, yet just two weeks later, before John Mozeliak had the "interim GM" title removed, La Russa
agreed to return for two more years. He later said he actually preferred a
one-year deal, but didn’t want to go through the lame duck speculation every
In January, 2008, with La Russa’s
immediate future determined, Mozeliak was forced to deal disgruntled Scott Rolen. He pulled off a trade with
Toronto for Troy Glaus. Earlier, the incumbent third baseman had
reached a point where he felt he could no longer play for La Russa. The
relationship between the player and both the manager and organization had
deteriorated over several years.
2010-201x? Perhaps it was the 2009 team’s solid
play on the field or that the Duncan soap opera diverted attention, but there
was little to no unreasonable media push on La Russa this summer to declare his
This time around, there is a new
complication. The status of his right-hand man, pitching coach Dave Duncan, may be in a more tenuous
position than that of La Russa’s. Glass was broken with the Duncan household due to
what was deemed to be unfair treatment of outfielder son Chris by segments of the organization,
media and fan base.
As a result, it is unclear whether
inclined to return and how that might impact La Russa’s impending decision.
Discussions between organization and coaches are underway with no set timetable
Walking away from managing
completely would seem difficult. La Russa is reportedly making over $4 million
per year as one of the highest-paid in his role in the business and may be
motivated to accrue the second-most managerial wins of all time, a mark from
which he is currently 211 short. Two more years probably won’t quite do
Going elsewhere doesn’t seem to be
in the plans, either. As recently as this February, La Russa firmly stated that
St. Louis would
be his final managerial stop. In an apparent rare acknowledgment of his
advancing years (he turned 65 years old last week), the manager noted that he
had never taken on a new assignment without a three-to-five year commitment and
was unsure he could do that again.
At the time, Mozeliak added that
he could not envision a scenario in which the club would not want La Russa as
Chances seem good the marriage
Brian Walton can be reached via
email at email@example.com.
Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation
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