ST. LOUIS — It wasn’t the chill in the late October air that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up one final time. It was how fitting absolutely everything about this one felt at the end.
The World Series trophy is back in one of America’s last real baseball towns for the 11th time in the history of the grand old game, this time passed around a stage set up at second base by a Cardinals team given up for dead on at least two occasions only a night earlier. Then again, you could have said that same thing about these guys a handful of times beginning in late August. Even Commissioner Bud Selig did.
An hour or so before St. Louis finally shook free of the Texas Rangers with a 6-2 victory Friday night in Game 7, Selig remembered a meeting in his Milwaukee office with Cards manager Tony La Russa two months earlier. At the time, St. Louis trailed the Brewers by 10 1/2 games in the National League Central; the Cardinals’ chances of catching the Braves for the wild card, meanwhile, looked to be longer than drawing to an inside straight.
Selig remembered searching for a way to soothe one of the most competitive men he’s ever met.
“I congratulated him on his great year,” the commissioner said. But he wasn’t expecting what came next.
La Russa, dead-serious, said, “We’re not done.”
“And,” the commissioner added, chuckling, “he wasn’t kidding.”
Far from it.
“If you watch the history of baseball, teams come back, and sometimes they could have come back but they give in or give up. And I knew the character on our team,” La Russa said, recalling that meeting in Milwaukee. “We started winning some games, regained some respect, and then it got better…. They just grabbed every game like it’s the last game.”
In his 16th season in charge in St. Louis, and nearing his fifth decade in the game as alternately, a slap-hitting shortstop, a know-it-all coach and finally, the closest thing to a genius the game has, La Russa won his third World Series title and second in six seasons. The three rings tie him with Sparky Anderson, Miller Huggins and John McGraw, and just like that trio and the handful of managers ahead of them, it practically guarantees entrance to the Hall of Fame.
Yet this one was not about posterity, but vulnerability.
About how La Russa kept moving all the parts around on a team that refused to fit together until all of a sudden, it did. Feelings were bruised in the process, starters got benched and utilitymen learned new positions. Four pitchers were thrown into the mix right around the trading deadline. As a result, La Russa probably spent more time tinkering with his bullpen than ever before. Considering his unmatched obsession with getting lefty-righty matchups and the converse, that’s saying a lot.
La Russa didn’t settle on Jason Motte who got the final out in Game 7 as his closer until mid-August, and even then, the manager refused to officially hand him the title. That bit of uncertainty, coupled with all the moves that preceeded it over the course of the season, opened La Russa up to more second-guessing than ever.
It reached a crescendo in a loss at Texas in Game 5 after a botched hit-and-run called by slugger Albert Pujols from the batter’s box, followed by two still-not-quite-explained phone calls by La Russa to the bullpen that failed to get the reliever he wanted on the mound. There was speculation that the pressure forced the mistake or worse, that La Russa, 67, had lost his edge.
“That kind of stuff would have bothered me, but Tony’s different” Cards bench coach Joe Pettini said. “He’s not afraid to make a mistake; never has been. He loves to say, `No guts, no glory,’ but he also tells guys, `You got a question about how things are handled, the door to the office is always open. Just ask it.’
“The answer might not be what you’re looking for, but he’s always got one.”
As proof of that, even with a four-run lead in Game 7, La Russa was sketching out an endgame about what to do if Motte, a right-hander, was shaky in trying to close out the game and the Rangers managed to send a few left-handed hitters to the plate. He couldn’t remember afterward if he bounced the scheme off Pettini or Dave Duncan, his pitching coach, but La Russa’s plan was to move Motte from the mound to the outfield, bring in left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski to pitch to the Rangers‘ left-handers, then bring Motte back to pitch to the right-handers.
“I don’t know if I’d do it,” he said. “I’ve never done it before in my life.”
The one thing La Russa knew for certain, though, is that he wouldn’t be dissuaded by the risk, or by the backlash that was inevitable if it backfired.
“When you’re doing all that, you know it can get away from you, and that’s part of the stress of those last innings,” he said, “because it’s a real small margin getting those last outs.”
When the final one came, more fans dressed in shimmering Cardinals red streamed into the ballpark than left it. After watching their ballclub survive two elimination games against the mighty Phillies at the start of the playoffs, then two more against the Rangers twice down to their last strike in Game 6 St. Louis fans were determined to throw themselves a party.
La Russa and his ballclub can finally do the same.