The location and size of it has changed over the years, but I've always been a member of some vaguely distinguishable pro-Tony La Russa camp. This year I don't think he should fired, and that appears to be the sole criterion for entrance into our dwindling club.
He didn't help matters—come on, man, dues are rising, membership is falling—by getting into Sunday afternoon's odd semantic game about Colby Rasmus's playing time, the seat he took in Sunday's loss, and the things he might be doing wrong. Viva El Birdos covered the ramifications of these quotes, which are worrisome, to say the least; Rasmus, even if he's "yanking" the ball, comes into Monday's action with a .269/.353/.503 line, third on the team in OPS behind players who are making something like a hundred times more than he does. The Cardinals need cheap production, and their 2005 first rounder is just that.
Of course, this isn't the first time Tony's had it out with a star player. While the Rasmus rift blossoms into the subject of a million vaguely ominous Joe Strauss, let's take a five-part trip down memory lane.
Honorable Mention: Rogers Hornsby
Rogers, let me just say that it's been a pleasure working with you over these last three weeks. You're just such an awesome jerk, and racist, and curmudgeon, and hitter, and I really hope we get the chance to work together on another running gag someday.
First, an Anthony Reyes update. I hope you like really depressing news!
Still making his way back from last season's elbow surgery, he's put in three starts for the Cleveland Indians' Eastern League affiliate, and after three scoreless innings in his first appearance he gave up 16 runs over 2.2 innings in his next two. The culprit? 10 walks. I hope he figures it out, because there was something wonderfully bizarre about his mound presence, from the stirrups to the slouch to the dreaded inverted W motion. (For what it's worth, he blames bad mechanical habits for this current issue, ironically enough.)
In any case, the Anthony Reyes disaster was one of the few times in which Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan stepped completely into their outsized reputation for youngster-hating. Even then, it took a confluence of bad circumstances for them to hit full curmudgeon. Reyes's four patchy years in Memphis were characterized by an almost boring dominance—he struck out 306 batters against just 81 walks and carried a sub-one home run rate through the hitting-heavy Pacific Coast League to boot.
But his time in the Majors was a little less consistent, and there was no AAA 1/2 to send him to. So when he struggled in 20 starts in 2007, which was just an awful year all the way around, and did it in a La Russa-unapproved way—too many strikeouts! Too many four-seam fastballs!—the response was to snipe from one camp to the other about fastball selection and jerk him into and out of the rotation.
Eventually, having exhausted all of his trade value, the Cardinals traded him to the Indians for Luis Perdomo, who they didn't care enough about to put on the 40-man roster, and he went to Cleveland and promptly blew his elbow out. I might have this one ranked too low—the sense of waste that pervades it, on all sides and from all parties, is exhausting even now. At least if Colby Rasmus or Tony La Russa leaves the team following this latest bust-up they'll go somewhere else and succeed.
4. Ray Lankford
This is the Ghost of Colby Rasmus Future—if, in some alternate universe, La Russa and Rasmus hold it together until Rasmus turns 34, loses a step, and moves to left field, assume there will be a point at which TLR can no longer handle Rasmus's strikeouts and pull-heavy tendencies in the wake of his declining speed.
Like, he'll still be a useful starting outfielder, thanks to his batting eye and the power, but he'll be scapegoated by the Busch faithful on a semi-regular basis. And his fragility and platoon splits will contribute to the idea that he can't be trusted to play everyday. Oh, and people are going to think that Kerry Robinson is a useful starting outfielder. Be ready for that.
3. Ozzie Smith
Time seems to have finally healed this wound, and luckily for the Cardinals Tony didn't come in and decide to platoon Ozzie Smith in 1987.
This encounter is what's inured me to all the concern that springs up when a player does anything that's not in keeping with his Hall of Fame stature as the end nears—most recently Ken Griffey, Jr., ending his career in a prolonged, sleepy slump, and before that any number of players joining sad-sack teams for final tours of duty after spending their entire careers in one nobler uniform.
Certainly it was unfortunate to see The Wizard end his career as a platoon player in road grays on natural grass—a platoon player with Royce Clayton, no less—while an unfamiliar-looking team nearly reached the World Series, but that's not sullied his legacy in any noticeable way. In fact, given his commentary skills, which fall somewhat short of Hall of Fame level, his temporary separation from the St. Louis fanbase has probably only made him more beloved.
2. Scott Rolen
Of all this clubhouse drama I think this the Scott Rolen situation is most characteristic of Tony La Russa's failings as a manager. What frustrates and excites about La Russa is that he operates within a much narrower style than most managers, who seem to have only a fuzzy effect on team composition and behavior. La Russa imported his tense, indignant, constant-vigilance style from Oakland and he's kept it going ever since, through 14 years of player and front-office changes. When players buy into it there's a sense that something special is happening, that they'reput into positions where they're able and obligated to succeed.
But it doesn't seem especially compatible with strong or vastly different personalities. Scott Rolen plays baseball like he is demonstrating it for people who didn't quite hear him right the first time he tried to explain things. When he hits a home run, he puts his head down and sprints around the bases; when the ball is hit his way he reacts instantly, makes an astounding play, and then puts his head down: Now you try it. His intensity is completely internalized; it doesn't have much in common with La Russa's almost paranoiac, external variety.
While Rolen was too perfect for it to matter much they got along fine. But after his shoulder problems took root La Russa had decisions to make, and his choices often clashed with Rolen's. And that was the end of it. Mozeliak's challenge trade for Troy Glaus worked out in 2008—Glaus was outstanding, and Rolen really did look done—but more recent events have lost him the trade. Managers are all about trade-offs; systems have costs and benefits, and assuming La Russa doesn't run Rasmus out of town in the offseason this was the steepest cost yet.
1. J.D. Drew
Picture for a moment a center fielder from the South. A lank, unassuming super-prospect—smooth swing; startling power; gliding, undramatic outfield supremacy; seemingly underutilized, effortless speed.
Now picture him disappointing, occasionally. He strikes out a little too much. He's fragile in a way you wouldn't expect a young player to be. Even when he's the most valuable player on the team he doesn't act like it.
Oh, and how he acts—don't picture much at all. He doesn't get excited when he makes a great play, and he doesn't get excited when he makes a boneheaded play. Post-game he sounds like somebody who's trying to ask if anybody's in the bathroom.
The ideal baseball player looks a lot like this guy, but Tony La Russa's ideal baseball player does not look a lot like this guy. He doesn't go the other way, he probably can't bunt particularly well, and he definitely won't cause the benches to clear. A thousand small cuts—a game that shouldn't be missed, a play that should be a made, a ball that should be slapped at—and mixed reviews from the stands.
J.D. Drew was getting expensive, and Jocketty pulled off one of his last great trades in sending him out of town, although it's kind of intoxicating to think about what an MV4 team would have looked like in 2004. The Cardinals can't afford—literally can't afford—to let the same gap between Rasmus and La Russa widen so early.
Talk things over, guys; if there's one good thing we can all learn from Rogers Hornsby, it's that aggression and disagreement occasionally needs a release, even if it involves urinating on somebody in the team showers.