Does La Russa's Contract Affect Cards' Play?

As assigning blame for the St. Louis Cardinals poor 2007 start heats up, manager Tony La Russa's contract status and ability to lead is coming under question. Not everyone agrees, however.

This past week, I wrote an article about the "Cardinals Rotation Growing Pains" in which I recommended patience with the young St. Louis starting pitchers, Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright.

As is often the case, readers offered up their comments. One especially astute emailer noted this: "It seems like you're always writing some sort of counter-reactionary piece at this time of year, and for good reason."

Though I had not thought about it that way before, that reader is absolutely right. When matters on the field go poorly for the home team, theories as to why start flowing like hard rain from pens, keyboards and mouths all across the Cardinal Nation.

Often times, these ideas come from fans while in other cases, they originate with major thought-influencers in the media with platforms much larger than mine. Especially in the latter case, when I see things differently, I use this forum to explain why, offering a contrary view.

Such is the case again here today.

On Thursday, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz offered up a piece called "La Russa's uncertain status only hurts Cards".

The subject is quite clear from the title. Miklasz wants to see Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's contract extended. OK, fine. His supporting arguments cause me to take exception, however.

In the third paragraph, the bomb is dropped. "Just about everyone assumes La Russa is moving on after the season, and that lame-duck status only damages his ability to lead," says the article.

Speculation about La Russa's plans is a yearly sport despite whatever time happens to be remaining on his then-current contract. Even in 2006, with over a season to go on his current deal, there was talk about La Russa walking away.

But, that isn't my primary concern. Everybody needs something to write about and contracts are always prime fodder.

Let's look further into the lame-duck comment, though. Miklasz asserts everyone thinks La Russa is leaving after the 2007 season. Let's take that at face value for a minute.

As the time-worn line says, "Be careful what you ask for, or you might get it."

Assuming the man plans to leave and he now clears up the uncertainty by making an announcement to that effect, his lame-duck status would move from a source of speculation as it is today to an absolute certainty.

How in the world would that positively impact La Russa's ability to lead or his team to win ballgames?

To me, it makes no sense at all.

Some would emerge focusing on trying to change La Russa's mind. Others would organize tributes and farewell tours. Still others would turn up the speculation on naming La Russa's replacement, causing disruption on the Cardinals coaching staff as well as on a number of other clubs, too.

How would that help the 2007 Cardinals win more games?

Well, that isn't the answer Miklasz wants – his desire is for La Russa to change his mind and stay on and force ownership to react. And in his opinion, there is an important reason why that has to be decided now.

"The fear factor was in place. Players don't want to get on La Russa's bad side. And staying motivated to maintain La Russa's respect and keep their jobs will only help players' performance."

"Fear factor" might be relevant for a Kelvin Jimenez or Skip Schumaker. But, that isn't the primary makeup of this veteran-laden club.

Many observers of the St. Louis Cardinals this season would logically point to the subpar contributions of long-time stars such as Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, David Eckstein and even Albert Pujols as the prime reason for the club's dreadful start.

Most of these Cardinals "core players", the ones who dictate the team's direction on the field, have multi-year contracts that provide them a significant measure of both financial and job security.

Are we expected to believe that Edmonds or Rolen or even Eckstein, the only member of the club's starting eight position players not under team control for 2008, would begin to play better due to the alleged return of their fear of La Russa when he signs a contract extension?

Really? Their professionalism is defined by the level of fear of their manager?

Instead, one could put forth the argument that if more members of the Cardinals organization were working under short-term deals like La Russa, it might increase the sense of urgency, not hurt it.

The Post column goes on to demand that team ownership, Bill DeWitt, Jr. in particular, step up and "make a new commitment to La Russa." Again, I don't get it. Ownership has said on many occasions that La Russa can manage as long as he wants. What more can they do now, other than wait for the manager to make his decision? What more should they do? I believe the answer is "nothing".

The piece moves on to speculate about the impact of front office politics on the La Russa situation. The basics are not news, as nothing has changed since last September, when Jeff Luhnow's expanded responsibilities and Walt Jocketty's extension were announced.

In fact, while much attention was given to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal's recent column about the impact of the dynamics in the Cardinals front office, I put forward similar points in a subscriber-only article back last October (called "Staying on Top") and presented it in the context of La Russa's future.

Again, nothing imminent is offered in the either Rosenthal's or Miklasz' articles that should drive La Russa to move up the time frame of his decision on whether or not to remain for 2008 and beyond. Frankly, given all the moving parts around him, I can see why the manager might want to wait.

The P-D article suggests that "La Russa has earned the right to stay, even if the Cardinals continue down this hard road and finish with a disappointing record."

Finally, there is one point about which we agree. However, I extend that one step further and state that La Russa has therefore also earned the right to make his decision on his career future when he pleases, not when the press demands it.

Miklasz closed his column with the time-honored plea, "the fans deserve to know".

Sorry, I don't buy that, either. What the fans deserve is good, hard, winning baseball. While the 2007 Cardinals are clearly not delivering, I simply cannot see how firming up Tony La Russa's plans for 2008 will get Edmonds, Rolen and the others hitting or accelerate the learning process of Wainwright and Reyes.

In my book, at this juncture, all the contract talk is simply noise on the line.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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