With Pujols’ contract situation up in the air, La Russa wise to walk away now

The St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa recieves the Commissioner’s Trophy from Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak after winning the 2011 World Series in St. Louis on October 28, 2011. The Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 6-2 winning game 7 of the World Series. The Cardinals won their 11th World Series after defeating the Texans 4 game to 3. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Maybe Tony La Russa’s decision to retire was as much about timing as it was foreshadowing.

Why not retire if you’re La Russa? Your Cardinals were seemingly left for dead in spring training when Adam Wainwright went down for the season and again when your club trailed the Braves by 10.5 games in the NL Wild Card. Down to your last strike not once but twice in Game 6, your Cards flat lined multiple times before reviving to become 2011 World Series Champions. And with three titles in your back pocket plus four Manager of the Year awards, there’s really no reason to keep going. You’re financially set, you’re already a baseball icon, and you’ll get to walk away after climbing the very top of the mountain.

You’ll also leave a potentially disastrous situation behind you as you ride off into the sunset.

St. Louis fans still haven’t stopped partying from last Friday night, nor should they. What the Cardinals were able to accomplish this year was highly improbable and they’ll go down as one of the most memorable teams in baseball history. If you think about what had to happen for them to even sneak into the postseason was incredible. Then throw in how they knocked off the heavily favored Phillies, the feel-good Brewers and the high-powered Rangers and…wow. Again, it’s been an improbable journey.

But while St. Louis continues to bask in its World Series glory, the rest of the baseball world is gearing up for next year. And next year’s Cardinals might look completely different if the front office can’t convince Albert Pujols to stick around.

With Wainwright expected to come back to full health next season, the Cardinals’ starting rotation will be in good, if not great shape. Jason Motte also gave the audition of a lifetime last postseason to be the closer next year and the lineup is solid as well. Matt Holliday is a nice player. David Freese is a nice player. Lance Berkman, assuming he’s as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, is a nice player.

But without Pujols in the middle of that lineup, sorry, the Cardinals are an average team. Great baseball city, but an average team. They’ll be even worse if Berkman reverts back to his 2010 production and/or if Holliday visits the disabled list as much as he did this past season.

There were probably many reasons why La Russa decided to call it quits at this point in his career. And who could blame him if he got the sense that the front office won’t be able to give Pujols what he wants? Who could blame La Russa if he saw the writing was on the wall and instead of going out with a whimper he went out with a roar?

No matter what those reasons were for why La Russa decided to retire, he goes out as a champion and doesn’t have to spend this winter thinking about how to repeat next year, which is difficult enough.

It becomes even harder when you don’t have your superstar first baseman batting in the three hole.

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Tony La Russa announces retirement

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hugs batting coach Mark McGwire after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series in St. Louis on October 28, 2011. The Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 6-2 winning game 7 of the World Series. The Cardinals won their 11th World Series after defeating the Texans 4 game to 3. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

What a way to go. The St. Louis Cardinals had an incredible season topped off by one of the most exciting World Series comebacks in baseball history. 67-year-old Tony La Russa apparently has decided that this was the perfect way to end his career, as he announced today that he will retire as manager of the Cardinals.

Already the talking heads on ESPN are speculating that this really won’t be the end for La Russa. Who knows. But he’s had a great career with three World Series titles.

One criticism of La Russa is that he should have won more championships, as he had an incredible team in Oakland that managed to lose two of of three times in the World Series. But baseball is a funny sport. The best team doesn’t always win – the hottest team wins. Baseball history is littered with examples of how a dominant pitcher and a hot team can defeat the more dominant teams. Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers were one example against La Russa’s A’s.

La Russa was hailed as a genius at times, and that happened again after Game 1 of this World Series after all of his moves seemed to work out. Then he was the goat of Game 5 as the Cardinals ran the wrong relief pitcher out to the mound after what La Russa described as a communication problem.

None of those details really matter now. La Russa is leaving the game in the way players and managers can only dream about.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa ponders his thoughts after announcing he has decided to retire during a press conference at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on October 31, 2011. La Russa, (67) who managed the Cardinals for 16 seasons guided his club to the franchise’s 11th World Championship just days ago. La Russa has 2,728 career wins. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Genius La Russa has a rough night

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter cant get control of a ground ball against the Texas Rangers during the fifth inning of game five of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas on October 25, 2011. The Rangers defeated the Cardinals 4-2 and lead the series 3-2. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

The fiasco with the bullpen was bad enough, but Tony La Russa really blew it in the ninth inning. Tom Verducci explains:

In the seventh inning, either Pujols called his own hit-and-run play and didn’t swing, or Craig saw a sign that wasn’t there, or the moon was in the phase of Aquarius, but somehow the Cardinals gave up a runner at first (Craig was thrown out), which immediately allowed Washington to intentionally walk Pujols. It gets worse. In the ninth, trailing 4-2, Craig was on first base with no outs while Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a full count on Pujols, who represented the tying run. La Russa ordered Craig to run on the pitch. Pujols, after two foul balls, chased ball four — a 99 mph fastball off the plate — swung through it and Craig was thrown out for double play.

Here is La Russa’s explanation in full:

“Yeah, I trusted Albert could put the ball in play. In fact, the two swings that he fouled the ball off with the second baseman going over, the hole was there and all of a sudden it was first and third and nobody out and the last pitch, the guy has a very live arm and it sailed on him and he missed. I liked sending him and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn’t work.”

Think about what La Russa is saying here. Pujols represents the tying run, and yet La Russa is talking about him as if he is Nick Punto. He is thinking about Pujols — who two days earlier joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only men ever to hit three homers in a game — hitting a groundball through the right side of the infield with Kinsler covering second base. A groundball to second base with Pujols finally getting a chance to swing the bat as the potential tying run! Do you know how many opposite field singles Pujols had this year in 651 plate appearances? Eleven. Less than two percent of his plate appearances. And that counts all opposite field singles of any kind, including line drives, not just seeing-eye ground balls through the vacated second base hole.

Do you know how many times Pujols hit a homer this year? Thirty-seven — or more than three times more often than he hit opposite field singles.

Really, my head hurts trying to figure out what La Russa did to this game but mostly how he tried to explain it away. It was like being stuck in a gigantic corn maze. Blindfolded. At midnight. After getting spun around 38 times. Every explanation led to another turn that led to another dead end or false exit. The bottom line is he lost the game having a matchup he didn’t want — a left-hander pitching to red-hot Napoli — and he lost his last opportunity by getting a runner thrown out who, while down two runs, didn’t mean anything. I’ve never seen a game even close to this one and I hope never again to have to try to explain one like it.

Watching the game, I was stunned to see Pujols swinging at that last pitch, trying to protect the runner. One swing and the game would have been tied. This is a classic case of a manager over-thinking a situation. Earl Weaver would have sat back and let his horse take his swings.

Cardinals take game 1 over Rangers

St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Holliday (7) hands relief pitcher Jason Motte (30) the ball he caught to make the final out after game 1 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers at Busch Stadium on October 19, 2011 in St. Louis. The Cardinals won 3-2. UPI/Brian Kersey

The St. Louis Cardinals won game one of the World Series 3-2 over the Texas Rangers. Tony La Russa seemed to have the magic touch as each of his moves worked perfectly in a tight game. In the sixth inning, La Russa sent out pinch hitter Allen Craig to hit for starter Chris Carpenter, and Craig got the game-winning RBI single.

From there, the Cards’ bullpen took over, and now they have game one.

La Russa: MLBPA forcing Pujols to ask for a record-setting contract

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa speaks to reporters before a game against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 13, 2010. La Russa who was given a two game suspension for his part in a bench clearing brawl during a game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati last week, will not manage the next two games. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Tony La Russa doesn’t believe that Albert Pujols is all about the money. He thinks it’s that damn Major League Baseball Players Association that is making Albert Pujols be all about the money.

From ESPN.com:

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Tuesday that he believes the Major League Baseball Players Association is attempting to “beat up” Albert Pujols and his agent in an attempt to get Pujols to sign a record-setting contract.

And that, La Russa said emphatically, “is bull—-. That’s not the way it should be.”

“I’m not saying that if I was a union representative I would do it differently,” the manager said. “I’m just saying I think it diminishes the other factors that a player looks at. … I think each negotiation should be based on what’s the best decision — taking everything into account, not taking one thing into account.”

But because the union sees Pujols as a player who can raise the salary bar, he’s under more pressure than your average player, La Russa said.

This sort of pressure has gone on for years, with many high-profile players, La Russa went on. But in Pujols’ case, he said, this was “not just arm-twisting. It’s dropping an anvil on your back through the roof of your house.”

La Russa said he had no specific evidence that Pujols was being pressured by the players union. But he said his many years in the game have made that “a guaranteed assumption. It’s gone on since I started managing. And I don’t think they’d deny it.”

I think the first sentence in that last paragraph sums up this situation nicely: La Russa has no evidence that the players union is pressuring Pujols.

Who knows, maybe La Russa is right and the union is pressuring players to get the most they can. But it’s not a stretch to think that the players and agents want to soak every last penny out of teams. Why wouldn’t they? If they’re lucky, players are able to land one, maybe two big contracts throughout their playing career, so you better believe they’re going to stretch the dollar amount as big as possible.

Besides, I don’t really see a benefit for the union to demand that players ask for as much money as possible. There’s already a natural order to the way contracts are done now. Player A makes X amount in 2010, then Player B makes a little more than what Player A made in 2011. Player C then makes a little more than Player B and the cycle never stops.

The union already has what it wants, so there’s no real need to put pressure on players. I think La Russa has just grown frustrated that this Pujols contract situation hasn’t been resolved and the players are set to report to spring training.

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