Cardinals' Tough Season Beyond La Russa's Control

Friday, September 28th 2007, 2:26 pm
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ In 30 years of managing, Tony La Russa has filled out thousands of those little blue lineup cards for the umpires, so many he could probably find the spaces without even looking.

Yet there he sat this week, pen in one hand, a miniature ruler in the other. His eyes fixed on the card, he carefully drew lines so straight they would make a nun beam with pride.

It's a little thing, this precision with a lineup card. But it speaks volumes about the single-mindedness that's made La Russa one of the best managers the game has ever seen _ and left him open to criticism that he's ignored signs of trouble in his own clubhouse.

Jose Canseco says he used steroids while playing for La Russa, and Mark McGwire is suspected of doing the same. This season, Rick Ankiel was linked to human growth hormone.

``I take responsibility for whatever a manager's supposed to do,'' La Russa said. ``That somebody thinks it wasn't done, they're welcome to their opinion.

``This is a conversation that I don't think can be done justice unless we spend a lot of time on this,'' he added. ``Whatever anybody thinks, they think. I'm not going to say anything about it.''

Time is winding down on this, La Russa's most trying of seasons. The St. Louis Cardinals followed up their World Series title with a losing record, their first since 1999 and only the eighth full losing season for La Russa. Injuries ravaged the lineup, with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein and Scott Rolen all missing time, and ace Chris Carpenter barely making it out of spring training.

Worst were the off-the-field woes, most notably the drunken driving death of reliever Josh Hancock. La Russa himself had a DUI in spring training, and Scott Spiezio left the team for a month to be treated for substance abuse.

``To blame Tony for anything like that is, to me, ridiculous,'' Spiezio said. ``He's a competitor, and he's going to put the best team on the field. But when it comes to off the field, he cares about each one of us as people. Every time that I've had an issue off the field where I needed his help, he's always helped me and he's always told me that's the priority.''

Though La Russa is as old-school baseball as they come, his management style is ripped straight from a college playbook. Think good friend Bob Knight or Bear Bryant _ minus the houndstooth hat, of course.

He is fanatical about preparation, both his own and that of his players. There is no doubt who is in control of the teams he manages, and he is famous for defining the reality within his clubhouse. He makes the rules in his world, and players can abide or go somewhere else.

Back in 2004, when St. Louis clinched the NL Central title with two weeks to go by virtue of a tiebreak over the Cubs, La Russa refused to let his team celebrate. If the Cardinals were going to be division champs, they would earn it on the field, not with a calculator.

``Magic . Is 1,'' he wrote on a message board in the clubhouse. ``Championship Won On Field. Not Some Formula!!!''

``He's relentless,'' said Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, one of La Russa's closest friends. ``He's just a fanatic about preparation, and he manages with absolutely no fear.''

And it's hard to argue with the results.

His 2,372 victories with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and Cardinals entering the weekend put him behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw. He and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win World Series titles in both the National and American leagues.

He's made the playoffs 12 times, including six of the last eight seasons. He's had four 100-win seasons and is a four-time BBWAA Manager of the Year.

La Russa's contract expires after this season, his 12th in St. Louis. Ownership has indicated the choice to return is La Russa's and, if he doesn't, he could be a top choice for Cincinnati.

``There's no politics. He says it like it is,'' Spiezio said. ``I know a lot of people don't like that, but I do. He's got a lot of guts. If you don't (like it), all you've got to do is walk in there and ask him. He doesn't fudge.

``You're not going to walk in there and go, 'Hey, why is this?' and he gives you some answer like the front office. He stands by whatever's going on. It's simple black and white.''

But baseball, like every facet in life, is colored in shades of gray.

Some question if, in his quest to win, La Russa turned a blind eye to problems.

He was the manager in Oakland when Canseco claims he and fellow Bash Brother McGwire were using steroids. He also managed McGwire in St. Louis, and continues to defend the slugger even as he's fallen from public grace.

``I don't think managers are baby-sitters,'' said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who still says letting La Russa be fired in 1986 was the biggest mistake he's ever made.

``If it was going on in Oakland at that time, I don't even know who was even thinking about steroids,'' Reinsdorf said. ``I can't imagine he should have been on the alert for it in those days.''

La Russa bristles at criticism of Ankiel, who reportedly received shipments of human growth hormone in 2004. The pitcher-turned-outfielder has said any drugs he took were prescribed by a doctor as part of his recovery from elbow surgery.

``I don't think Rick did anything wrong. That was probably the most unfair exaggeration, some of the leaps that some members of the media took,'' La Russa said. ``He goes into ballparks, and he's booed by fans. I think that was one of the lowest moments we've had other than Josh dying. I thought that was really hitting below the belt.''

When Hancock died in April, La Russa warned his players of ``insincerity'' and said some in the media ``have their own agendas.'' An autopsy later showed the young pitcher was drunk, and police said they found marijuana inside his sport utility vehicle.

In August, Spiezio left the team for about five weeks to be treated for substance abuse.

``We're all adults, and we have the opportunity to make our own decisions,'' Eckstein said. ``The bottom line is, at the end of the day, you've got to be accountable to your team. It's on each player to make that decision himself. It's not up to the manager to sit there and try to see what we do off the field.''

While his players and friends are quick to defend him, La Russa sees no need. He's heard all the criticism _ plenty of times. But he either has long stopped caring what people think, or has grown so wary that he no longer thinks whatever he says will be done justice.

Besides, his job is to win games, not friends. And he has figured out how best to do it.

``There is a real honor and privilege to put on a big league uniform. You're very fortunate every day you're in the big leagues,'' he said. ``But I think coaches and managers will tell you there are issues now that sometimes take away from the enjoyment of the competition.

``But if it ever gets to where you're not enjoying it, you do something else for a living, right? Like they always say, there's no free lunch.''