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“I’m not sure there are a lot of people that can match the preparation, the dedication and the ability to put it all together,” he said.

Mozeliak said the team will have a “long list” of candidates for a job that will likely be considered among the best in baseball given the strong returning team _ whether or not Albert Pujols decides to come back _ and based on the strong fan support in St. Louis.

“There’s going to be a lot of names that we’ll consider,” Mozeliak said. “We want to do our due diligence. We want to be smart.”

DeWitt said replacing La Russa will be a tall task.

“We’re not going to find a Tony La Russa out there, given his career and what he’s accomplished, what he’s meant to the Cardinals,” DeWitt said. “We’re in a pretty good situation for the future. But it’ll be different, no question about it.”

La Russa’s decision leaves the future of his coaching staff up in the air. Mozeliak said the new manager will be given autonomy to hire his own staff or retain some or all of La Russa‘s. Asked about pitching coach Dave Duncan, La Russa’s longtime right-hand man, Mozeliak did note that Duncan is under contract for 2012.

As for Pujols, Mozeliak noted that he has a strong relationship with the only manager he’s ever played for, but doubted it would be a factor in whether the free agent first baseman stays.

“He probably understood that Tony is not going to manage forever,” Mozeliak said.

La Russa was a .199 hitter in a brief major league career. He began as a manager with the Chicago White Sox in 1979. He guided the Oakland A’s to three straight American League pennants in 1988-1990 and the 1989 World Series title over the Giants.

La Russa was hired by the Cardinals in October 1995, soon after the new ownership group purchased the team from Anheuser-Busch. His impact was immediate _ the Cardinals won the NL Central and came within a game of going to the World Series in 1996, losing to the Atlanta Braves.

Overall, St. Louis went to the playoffs nine times in La Russa’s 16 seasons, won pennants in 2004, 2006 and this year, and won two championships, over Detroit in 2006 and this season, rallying to win the final two games over Texas, including the memorable Game 6 when the Cardinals trailed five times and were down to their last strike in two innings. His teams were successful on the field and in the stands _ the Cardinals drew 3 million fans in 13 of La Russa’s 16 seasons.

La Russa, who won 2,728 regular-season games, including 1,408 with the Cardinals, said he never considered coming back simply to reach No. 2 on the all-time wins list.

“I’m aware of the history of the game, but I would not be happy with myself if the reason I came back was to move up one spot,” La Russa said.

Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson said La Russa picked the right time to leave.

“I tip my hat to him. He’s had a great career. What a way to go out,” said Johnson, who at 68 is a year older than La Russa. “If you’re going to retire, that’s the way to go out; a world champion.”

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