La Russa revolutionized the sport during his time with Oakland, making Dennis Eckersley a one-inning closer. Now, it’s common for all 30 big league teams.
“He’s been an outstanding leader of many different teams under many different circumstances, and that’s hard to do,” said New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, La Russa’s GM with the Athletics.
La Russa had unusual strategies: He started a game with the pitcher batting eighth 432 times. He was renowned for his use of batter-pitcher matchups in determining which reliever to bring in, but also ridiculed “Moneyball” and its emphasis on statistics over human scouting and observation.
Potential successors include Francona, Jim Riggleman and Joe Maddon, who has one year left on his deal in Tampa Bay but has expressed interest in the Cardinals in the past.
A pal of Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, La Russa was an outspoken supporter of PETA and animal rights, and could be seen during spring training years ago in Phoenix hitting fly balls to one of his dogs.
He was treated at the Mayo Clinic in May for shingles, which left his face swollen and right eye nearly shut. The manager downplayed his health, saying “it had no bearing on my future.”
La Russa spoke with little emotion at the news conference with one exception, when he paused to compose himself as he thanked his wife, Elaine, and two daughters for putting up with his absence over much of his long tenure.
The news conference was held at 9 a.m. CDT, giving La Russa time to get to New York for an appearance on Monday’s “Late Show with David Letterman” during which he joked a bit with the host.
Letterman’s reply: “This is my first night.”
La Russa willingly shared credit for his longevity, telling Letterman that Dave Duncan “will go down as the greatest pitching coach in the history of the game.”
And though he never relocated to St. Louis, La Russa had warm thoughts for the city.
“You don’t like to disparage anybody else, David, but it’s a unique place ‘cause most places, they’re with you win or tie, but with them, it’s win or lose.”
La Russa often appeared tightlipped at his televised postgame news conferences, but behind the scenes he showed his sense of humor and often poked fun at himself by referencing his .199 career big league average in a playing career that consisted of 176 at-bats over 11 years as a second baseman, shortstop and third baseman. The manager was looser than usual and more reflective in October, perhaps doing a personal farewell tour.
La Russa donned a throwback Sam Bradford jersey on the sideline before the Rams’ upset of the Saints on Sunday.