Staying On Top

St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa is again on top of the baseball world, after last winning the World Series going on two decades ago, in 1989. Will he stay around to try for number three?

Let me preface my comments by saying that this article is full of speculation. But, there have been enough snippets of rumors over the recent weeks that I've decided to share my theories with our subscribers. Please don't misrepresent them. They are offered here for your consideration.

As the tired old line goes, the only thing tougher than reaching the top is remaining there.

For Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, it took 17 years to reach the summit again following his Oakland A's 1989 World Championship.

Will he stay around to try it again and what might be the effect of some of the things going on around him?

Fact: La Russa is on top of the baseball world, finally winning his second World championship, becoming the second manager to win a World Series in both leagues.

Fact: La Russa has another year remaining on his contract, signed two years ago. However, his coaching staff received two-year deals after the 2004 World Series that will soon expire.

Fact: La Russa has said on multiple occasions that he would stay as long as he felt he had the support of ownership. But he has also said more recently that he would not stay on forever. La Russa also hinted at least once that he might retire if the Cardinals could win it all.

Fact: La Russa's teams have won almost 2300 regular season games, third most of all time. But, he would need almost 500 more to move into second and would seem to have no chance of ever reaching number one. That is held by Connie Mack, with 3741, mostly accumulated in over 50 years of managing (and owning) the A's.

Fact: The number four name on the career managerial wins list, Sparky Anderson, is one of La Russa's mentors. He is also that other manager to have World Series wins in both leagues. Sparky retired from baseball in 1995 at the age of 61.

Fact: La Russa is now 62 years old and has continued to live in California during his entire reign as Cardinals skipper.

Fact: Neither Mack nor Anderson got out while on top. Mack's last Championship was 20 years before he retired and for Sparky, it had been 11 years before.

Fact: La Russa and General Manager Walt Jocketty have enjoyed a very close working relationship for the last eleven years.

Fact: Vice President Jeff Luhnow was recently promoted, having been given additional responsibilities that formerly were under Bruce Manno, a traditional baseball man who had been brought in by Jocketty.

Fact: Luhnow is in charge of quantitative analysis, the international program, the draft and now the minor league system.

Fact: Luhnow was originally hired by General Partner Bill DeWitt, Jr. and reports to Jocketty.

Fact: The one-year option on Jocketty's contract was picked up by ownership, covering the 2008 season, at the same time as Luhnow's announcement and Manno's reassignment.

Now for the speculation. Call it rumor or theory or wild guesses.

Theory: Jocketty's extension was provided as a balance to Luhnow's increasing responsibility and may not have been accepted with as much enthusiasm as one might have expected.

Theory: Luhnow's growing responsibilities position him as a GM in training, the job currently occupied by Jocketty.

Theory: La Russa is not alone in his distaste for the newer quantitative methods being introduced in the game.

Theory: In order to keep their core players for 2007 and beyond, while only increasing the payroll modestly, the Cardinals may have to get younger and cheaper with the rest of the roster.

Theory: The decision not to negotiate with the veteran free-agent to-be hurlers until after the season was ownership-driven.

Theory: With the playoff success, the price to keep Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver may have moved from reasonable to not.

Theory: La Russa may be looking at the organizational changes around him and may not agree with them all or may have concern over where they might be heading.

Theory: La Russa seemed to ease up late in the season, despite the team's troubles on the field. To this observer, he almost seemed strangely at peace, as if he had a weight off his shoulders.

Theory: La Russa may have decided he has now accomplished all he intended to accomplish as manager of the Cardinals. A quick communication of that decision now would enable everyone from ownership to coaches and players to have as much time as possible to chart out their next steps.

Theory: This is what Mike Shannon was referring to at the end of his Game Five World Series broadcast when he told listeners that he has a gut feel that some big news is coming.

Looking ahead
Let's assume for a minute that La Russa decides to leave the Cardinals. Will the team want a La Russa disciple to follow behind him? Will ownership let Jocketty hire his own man? Would the generally-accepted front-runner, third base coach Jose Oquendo, be given his first big-league managerial role with the Cardinals?

I am not as convinced as many that will happen as I am not sure that Oquendo has the total package for managerial success. I may not be alone in having those questions.

From a knowledge and player relations perspective, yes, Jose seems ready.

However, I have questions about his ability to thrive in the people aspects of the job with fans, the public and the press. I don't know if he could be an effective "CIO", as those requirements in total are much greater than what is needed to become a stand-out coach.

Perhaps Oquendo could do it all, but from personal observation over several years now, I have wondered if he enjoys the parts of the job not directly related to the game of baseball on the field itself.

Just Thursday, La Russa said the following, on the heels of a glowing diatribe about Oquendo's intelligence, insight, etc...

"There's no doubt in my mind that Jose would be an outstanding manager. I think the key is asking Jose, because there's some baggage that attaches, and you have to make a decision where you want to go with that."

What La Russa obliquely refers to as "baggage" is exactly what I am talking about above. That clearly signals to me that someone - La Russa, management, Oquendo himself or some combination of the above - is unsure about whether Jose has the total package required for success.

It may take days, weeks of even months from now to learn how many of the theories above will become fact and what is simply rumor that will not come to pass.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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