Very rarely do the great ones quit early. Often times they prolong retirement, reluctant to say goodbye to the game that they love. Michael Jordan couldn’t help but make a relatively unsuccessful comeback with the Washington Wizards two years after his initial retirement. Brett Favre could not let go, and we all know how that went (5-8 record, 19 interceptions in 2010).
It is a beautiful thing when a special player or coach retires at the right time. Bill Russell retired immediately after upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1969 NBA finals. John Elway retired after tossing 336 yards and a touchdown in Denver’s 34-19 Superbowl victory in 1998.
And now, Tony La Russa.
La Russa, 67, announced his retirement yesterday. La Russa compiled the third most wins (2728) of all time, is currently one of eight managers to win three world series titles, and collected the second most postseason victories of any manager ever. So, yeah. He was pretty good.
I read Buzz Bissinger’s “Three Nights In August”, detailing La Russa’s preparation and what makes him so special. I learned that he studies his opponents fervently, whether it’s game number one or game number 101. His game preparation was marked my intensity and paranoia. He worried that his team would lose due to a managing fault on his behalf, so he tirelessly researched to keep himself on top.
He is known as perhaps the most uncanny manager of our era. He once batted his pitcher 8th. He had Albert Pujols, despite a severe arm injury that limited Al’s throwing ability, play right field so he could bat. He brought an unwavering confidence to the St. Louis Cardinals that he would pull through in the end. St. Louis is called the best baseball city in America, and La Russa was the heart and soul of it all.
I think La Russa was the greatest people manager that I have ever seen. We get caught up in batting averages and on base percentages. La Russa never let the sabermetric era get in the way of his knowledge of psychology and the human tendencies of his players. Underrated aspect of managing.
In the end, La Russa managed three different teams, 33 total seasons, and won three world series titles. (Creepy, 3,33,3) He may not have had the talent that Joe Girardi had in New York, or the charisma of Ozzie Guillen in Chic-I mean, Florida. But La Russa should go down in history as one of the best managers of all time.
And he went out on top.