Jocketty and La Russa Set Unenviable Record

The Cardinals general manager and manager have been together longer than any comparable duo since the World War II era without a World Championship to show for it.

The six-game loss in the National League Championship Series to their Central Division rivals Houston Astros was a major disappointment to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans alike. Yet, 29 of 30 major league clubs conclude their season in a similar position each and every year; as there can be but one champion.

 

However, along the banks of the Mississippi, the sting seems to persist longer with each missed opportunity. Despite being one of the game's most storied franchises, the Cardinals have not been crowned World Series champions since 1982.

 

Many other teams have done it

 

Since the Cards' last Series victory in 1982, over half of Major League Baseball's other teams have won the prize. The count has grown to 16 of 29 now that the Chicago White Sox have taken the 2005 Series. This includes three trophies brought home by expansion clubs not even yet in existence in 1982 (Florida Marlins twice plus Arizona Diamondbacks).

 

The patient

 

One large segment of Cardinal fans patiently wait, remaining hopeful that the team will reload and finally achieve the final step in 2006 after coming so close and failing once again. There are plenty of reasons and rationalizations that have been offered in recent days to explain away another crushing playoff defeat this year – from umpires' calls to injuries to the Wild Card to just plain bad luck.

 

These fans look to the team of Senior Vice President / General Manager Walt Jocketty and Manager Tony La Russa to break the code on how to lead the team to the Promised Land.

 

The impatient

 

Other more radical fan groups are far less tolerant, continuing long standing demands that team leadership must go, whether or not they can articulate exactly what they think should be done instead.

 

Yet others are simply and derisively labeling the Cards "the new Atlanta Braves" due to the apparent parallels between the two in terms of consistent regular season excellence followed by equally consistent October disappointment.

 

Is the unrest and criticism fair? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

 

Cardinals = continuity

 

The Cardinals have enjoyed continuity in these two leadership positions, starting with the general manager's chair, arguably the most important position in forming the on-field product each season. After joining the Cardinals on October 14, 1994, Jocketty has now completed his 11th season in St. Louis, with two more years remaining on his current contract.

 

Jocketty now sports the third-longest tenure among MLB general managers, following Atlanta's John Schuerholz and Minnesota's Terry Ryan. With the completion of the 2005 season, Jocketty has also become the longest continuous-tenured GM in the long and distinguished history of the Cardinals franchise. Bing Devine served from 1968 through 1978 and Dal Maxvill held the position from 1985 until 1994.

 

Jocketty's hand-picked field manager also been at his side for most of that period. Tony La Russa joined the Cardinals for Jocketty's second year, starting in 1996, and has now completed ten full seasons as the Redbirds' skipper. Like Jocketty, La Russa has two more years on his current contract. Between the two, they are owed in the $8 million range over the remainder of their deals.

 

Great regular seasons

 

Together, the two have guided the Cardinals into the playoffs in five of the last six years and six seasons in ten overall. The team has put up back-to-back 100-win seasons for the first time since the World War II years, leading MLB clubs in wins both times. La Russa was crowned the NL Manager of the Year in 2002 and Jocketty was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News in both 2000 and 2004.

 

Disappointing postseasons

 

During the duo's tenure, the Cardinals have made it to the National League Championship Series five times but earned just one National League pennant. They were swept in their only World Series appearance, against the Boston Red Sox in 2004. Overall, La Russa's playoff record as Cardinals manager is 28-27, with a stellar 17-4 record in the first round but a less-than-admirable 11-23 mark beyond that point.

 

La Russa's career numbers mixed

 

While this report is primarily focused on Jocketty's and La Russa's time with the Cardinals, it is appropriate to step aside a moment to examine La Russa's broader career resume, since it is an important part of his allure.

 

Rightly so, much fanfare has been made about La Russa's climb up the career managerial wins chart. He currently ranks third all-time, with 2214 wins in 26 seasons. However, Tony's teams also have taken the fourth most losses ever, 1908. Only three managers in the top ten in career wins registered a lower career regular-season win percentage than La Russa's .537 mark.

 

No manager in the top ten has fewer World Championships than Tony's one, collected with the Oakland A's in 1989. The other nine top managers averaged 3.7 World Championships each over their careers.

 

Ownership providing money to compete

 

Both La Russa and Jocketty seem to be receiving full and continued support of a Cardinals ownership group poised to reap the significant monetary benefits that a new ballpark, shopping and office village and radio station ownership are expected to deliver into their coffers. Will these improved financials translate into improved results on the field? We shall see.

 

Certainly, to-date Jocketty and La Russa cannot complain that they haven't been given enough player salary dollars to compete. According to USA Today's database, the Cardinals had a higher payroll than the eventual World Series champions in three of the last four seasons. In five of the seven times in their ten years together when Jocketty was outspent, the champions were either the New York Yankees (four times) or Boston (once). Both clubs are usually among baseball's top spenders.  

 

Despite being a mid-market club, during these last ten years, the Cardinals' salary budget has been as high as sixth in MLB twice (in 2005 and 1998) and over the last ten years averaged tenth, just placing them in the top third of all teams.

 

GMs given a lot of time

 

While Jocketty's stretch run in St. Louis is admirable, it is not unique. Walt is at least the 29th general manager across Major League Baseball since World War II to remain in his job for 11 years or more. And Walt is not alone in missing out on winning the World Series. In fact, surprisingly, almost half of these 29, 14 including Jocketty, did not take home a World Championship in their 11-plus-season tenures as general manager.

 

Managers get a shorter rope

 

However, it is not nearly as easy to remain a field manager with a single GM. Under these 29 long-time general managers, only six managers managed to keep their job under that lone boss for ten years or more.

 

Long-standers include Casey Stengel with GM George Weiss of the Yankees, Danny Murtaugh (in three stretches) with Joe L. Brown in Pittsburgh, Walter Alston under Buzzie Bavasi with the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda with Al Campanis also with the Dodgers and Bobby Cox, still alongside John Schuerholz of the Atlanta Braves to this day.

 

World Championships are the key

 

The common thread among this five pair of men? Each of these long-standing manager-GM teams' ball clubs won the World Series at least once. In fact, Bavasi's and Alston's Dodgers took home four championships and Stengel and Weiss won seven times together. One could certainly assume their longetivity was significantly enhanced by their teams' on-field success.

 

One pair stands out

 

The sixth long-term manager-GM combo? That would be none other than Tony La Russa and Walt Jocketty. What do you suppose makes them unique?

 

Well, there is one huge difference between these two and all the others. Over the last 58 years, no other pair anywhere in Major League Baseball has remained in their jobs together so long without at least one World Championship to show for their efforts.

 

The literally hundreds of duos that have come before them and since were broken up for one reason or another. Most likely an inability to win the big one was ultimately the prevailing prime cause. Yet, La Russa and Jocketty continue to be given more time to solve what appears to be an increasingly-complex challenge of negotiating through the regular season and then three levels of the playoffs to reach the top.

 

Not the Braves yet

 

At any rate, it seems most unfair to label the Cardinals as the next Braves. As-is, they haven't yet earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with the tomahawk choppers. Granted, the Atlanta club has often struggled in the playoffs since Cox and Schuerholz came together in 1990, but the pair do have one World Series trophy from 1995 to show for their efforts.

 

As a result, at this point, wouldn't Jocketty and La Russa have every reason to wish the Cardinals could, in fact, become the next Atlanta?

 

Two more years?

 

Last winter, when each received new three-year deals, the duo were ostensibly given that much longer to find a way – some way – to get it done. One of those precious opportunities was lost earlier this month. Now there are but two years remaining and that time will be running out soon; sooner than we think.

 

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Footnote: For the record, the longest falling-short general manager-manager combination in history that I could find was in Boston. Eddie Collins was the Red Sox' general manager from 1933 to 1947 and his field manager for 13 of those championship-free seasons was Joe Cronin.

 

Cardinal fans can only hope their team is not in the midst of a streak of futility anything like the one Bostonians suffered through from 1918 to 2004, part of which occurred on the watches of the gentlemen noted above. Yet, today's Cardinals are already over one-fourth of the way there.

 

Subscribers can reference the detailed general manager-manager tables referenced in this report here.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

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