When Did La Russa Become a Sacred Cow?

Categories: Cardinals

I really don't know exactly what to say anymore. I really don't. I've exhausted pretty much all my powers of analysis. I've used up all the wisdom that I've accumulated. I've tossed out pretty much every metaphor that I could devise, every single bizarre analogy I could imagine. Hell, I've even used up all the cliches I know.

This team has exhausted every single avenue I possess for expressing frustration. I never thought I would say it, but I'm at a complete loss.

What I fail to understand, though, still, is how it is that Tony La Russa's job appears completely safe.

Look, I realize that La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager. He's one of the best that the game has ever seen. But this September swoon isn't exactly the first, now is it? Last year, the Cardinals did very much this same thing. They got themselves into a position to possibly take the post-season by force, only to watch it all collapse like a souffle when someone slams a door. In 2006, the Cards very nearly lost their division lead the last two weeks of the season, as they lost seven games in a row at the end of September. If it weren't for the Braves beating the Astros and Scott Spiezio hitting a very well-placed line drive off of Francisco Cordero, the Miracle of ‘06 might never have happened.

Quick aside here: I was actually at that game at the very end of the '06 season when the score of the Atlanta-Houston game came up and everyone in the crowd just sort of spontaneously started doing the Tomahawk Chop. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life as a sports fan, and to be honest, one of the most sublime as well.

Wikipedia
Linehan starts the season 0-2 as fans are calling for him to be fired.
Virtually every other coach, regardless of their sport, is put on the hot seat when their team fails to perform. Turn on sports talk radio any time of the day here in St. Louis, and all you'll hear are people calling for Scott Linehan's job. Never mind that he inherited an awful team. He's obviously the one who ran the Rams franchise into the ground.
Blues head coach Andy Murray.
We heard much of the same talk late in the hockey season about Andy Murray as well. When Murray took over during the 2006-07 campaign and seemingly turned the ship around, he was the saviour. Last season, though, when everyone thought the team had a legitimate shot at the playoffs and they went in the tank, suddenly there were questions about whether Murray just pushed the players too hard. Maybe there was a reason why he was run out of Los Angeles, etc.

But here we have a Cardinal team just coming apart at the seams late in the season for the third year in a row, and not a peep from anyone, really, about La Russa's job being in jeopardy. I don't get it. When did this guy become a sacred cow?

We always hear that Tony does such a good job of resting his starters throughout the year, they're obviously fresher when it comes down to crunch time. If that logic were true, though, you would expect the Cards to play fantastic baseball down the stretch, rather than peter out. However, year after year, we see the Cardinals lose ground in September.

Wikimedia Commons
La Russa in 2002.
The Cardinals' last great September, in fact, came in 2002, when the Redbirds went a stunning 21-6 down the stretch to roar to a final mark of 97-65. That was the year the Cardinals lost Darryl Kile, and La Russa did perhaps his finest job of managing in all his long career. Not that that has anything necessarily to do with the current discussion, but if I'm going to blast the guy, I had better be willing to give credit where it's due as well.

In '03, the Cards failed miserably at the end of the season, losing four games of a five game series to the Cubs at the beginning of September, when the division was ripe for the taking. They ended up playing exactly .500 ball in September overall, at 13-13, and finished three games back of the Northsiders.

In 2004 and '05, the Cardinals played alright but not great down the stretch. In neither year, though, did it much matter. Both seasons, the Cards had such a lead built up that they had long been on cruise control by the time the leaves began to turn. Thus, Tony and the Birds get passes for both of those years. No need to really put the pedal down when you've already lapped your pursuit.

And then we have the last three years. I already covered them, so I won't rehash. The point is, the Cardinals have shown a distinct proclivity for quite a while now to fade, badly, when it comes down to the nitty gritty. Yet somehow La Russa gets a free pass. Is everyone so convinced that Tony is really this much of a genius that they can't even consider the notion that he may no longer be the best man for the job? Or are they just scared of him? He bullies the media to an incredible extent, yet no one calls him on it. (Well, almost no one.)

This is a team that is currently trying to embrace the player development route to team building. And yet the manager of the major league club just can't help himself from constantly making comments that undermine that philosophy. We hear all kinds of rumors and insinuation about the organization's top prospect – minor leaguer Colby Rasmus -- being in Tony's doghouse somehow.

You don't necessarily want to just buy that sort of speculation at face value, but the Cardinals desperately need outfield help, and yet their No. 1 prospect, an outstanding center fielder, is at home working out. Are there extenuating circumstances? Yes. But there are also a whole lot of pieces that somehow just don't quite add up.

I guess what I'm trying to figure out is this: why isn't Tony La Russa held to the same standard as every other manager or coach in professional baseball? You can talk about injuries all day long if you want; that's obviously a huge part of why the Cardinals have taken such an horrific downturn. But if there were another sports team that, year after year, failed in the home stretch, I have to think that the manager would be under an awful lot of scrutiny. At the very least, there would be some hard questions being asked, and there would be a whole lot of dissatisfaction amongst the fans with the way the team was being run. But when it comes to La Russa, hey, he's manager until he decides it's time to go.

I'm sorry, but that just doesn't seem quite right to me. No one should just have a job until they don't want it anymore. If a player isn't performing, the team goes and finds a better option. The same should be true of the manager.

I just don't get it.

-Aaron Schafer

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