Making Something From Nothing

Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder.  Tell that to some Cardinal fans.

When the news was released that Tony La Russa would forgo a logo on his cap for his Hall of Fame plaque, certain sections of the fan base were irate.  Honestly, irate might be underselling it.  Suddenly, everything TLR had done in St. Louis was discounted because there would be no STL in bronze when he will be inducted this July into Cooperstown.

It’s fairly ironic, given the fact that for years a certain faction of the fan base tried their best to run La Russa out of St. Louis, saying he never could be a true Cardinal and he’d never get the team over the hump.  A couple of World Series titles can really change people’s tunes, can’t they?

As you know, I’m one that could be considered a homer for the most part.  While I know there are bumps and flaws in the product, I’m Cardinal through and through.  You can’t sit down at a keyboard multiple times a week and discuss a team without having some affection for them.  So while you might think that I’d be one of the people horrified about this whole decision, I’ll be honest–it doesn’t bother me in the least.

La Russa put out his stated goal that he didn’t want to disrespect any other place that he’d been by choosing one over the other.  That’s in line with his personality–someone today referenced his “tied for first” mentality that never wanted to place one thing over another.  As Bernie Miklasz notes in his column on the topic, TLR is still good friends with all the various owners.  It makes sense, the way La Russa looks at things, to not want to ruffle any feathers there.

It also makes sense in another way.  As you know, La Russa is now working for MLB and, it would seem to me, might be open to some other jobs higher up the food chain.  Keeping those that might employ him happy might seem to be a good idea for him.  Obviously the MLB connection didn’t keep Joe Torre from making a definitive choice, but there’s no doubt that the two managers are cut from different cloth.

I see a lot about how TLR wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer if it wasn’t for St. Louis.  Perhaps, but I wonder about that.  While I don’t expect Chicago meant a lot to his legacy, he did win one of his Manager of the Year awards there as well as a divisional title.  He also had two Rookies of the Year (Ron Kittle and Ozzie Guillen) and a Cy Young winner (LaMarr Hoyt) during his tenure there.  If you take Chicago off of his resume, he’s still probably a Hall of Famer, but that case isn’t quite as lustrous.

My feeling is that Oakland had a ton to do with La Russa’s legacy, so much so that I would believe without the A’s, Tony’s not going into Cooperstown this weekend.  I’m not saying that he did more in Oakland than he did in St. Louis, but think about the entire situation.

One, he went to three consecutive World Series and won the middle one.  Obviously, if they could have gotten past the Dodgers or Reds, this case would be even stronger, but three AL pennants is pretty impressive.  He had three straight Rookie of the Year winners (Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss), two Cy Youngs (Bob Welsh, Dennis Eckersley), and three MVPs (Canseco, Eckersley, Rickey Henderson).  While a manager doesn’t get a lot of credit for those awards, there’s got to be some cache there.

However, I think the most important thing to the Oakland case is how he transformed bullpen usage there.  His use of Eckersley and others became the template across baseball.  When TLR is mentioned, what’s one of the first things that gets associated with him?  Pitching changes and bullpen usage.  Things that he really pioneered in his time wearing the green and gold.

There are two books that I own that I have read so many times that they are falling apart.  One is my collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that I got in the fifth grade.  The other is George Will’s Men at Work.  Will’s pre-sabermetric look at the game of baseball featured four primary men.  Save for Orel Hershiser (who wound up with a pretty solid career anyway), all three are now in the Hall of Fame.  The manager he selected was, of course, TLR.  In his Oakland days.  Anyone that wants to claim he made his bones in St. Louis really needs to rethink just where he stood in the game after his time in Oakland was complete.

Besides, the man still lives in California, close to the Bay Area.  There’s a hometown pull that is tough to completely disregard.  Just ask Greg Maddux, who is stunningly also going in without a logo instead of being adorned with the Atlanta A.  If there’s any decision that really needs to be second-guessed, it might be that one.

Now, obviously, La Russa did a ton of great things while wearing Cardinal red.  Two World Series titles, appearing in one other.  A Rookie of the Year in Albert Pujols, who also turned in some MVP turns.  A Cy Young in Chris Carpenter.  Sixteen years with loads of division titles and playoff appearances.  There’s no doubt that La Russa ascended to the greatest heights while under the Arch.

However, he couldn’t have gotten to those heights had he not started from such a lofty perch.  I honestly don’t think that, taken completely by itself, La Russa would have made it to the Hall based on his work as a Cardinal, at least not as quickly and as automatically as he did.  It takes all of his experiences to give us the Hall of Famer we have today.

If I was choosing?  Sure, I’d have him go in as a Cardinal.  I think of him as a Cardinal and I think some of his greatest moments came there.  However, I don’t think the decision between Oakland and St. Louis was as definitive as some would make it out to be.  There’s enough there to make for an extensive debate, and if that’s the case, a blank cap is no great injustice.

There are Cardinal fans that, I think, still have a bit of an open wound about Pujols leaving.  There was rejection there, rejection that hasn’t quite healed.  They may not be mad at Pujols anymore, they may be relieved in hindsight that the club didn’t spend for him, but that cut hasn’t scarred over.  There’s still a little–I don’t want to say inferiority complex, I don’t think that’s right, but it’s a tender tissue that doesn’t take much to inflame.  La Russa’s choice not to reaffirm Cardinal Nation as the best fans, in his mind, reopened that wound.

It’s not like La Russa’s tenure with the club is going to be completely ignored.  It’ll be listed right on his plaque and everyone will know that he spent a long time in St. Louis.  What team is on his cap is a mere trivia point, a fashion statement that didn’t have to be made.  I’m perfectly happy recalling him wearing the real uniform rather than worrying about his bronzed one.

Again, I wouldn’t have made the decision that TLR made, but I can respect why he made the one he did.  His induction is still a point of pride for anyone related–even if only by rooting interest–to the Cardinal organization and I look forward to seeing him go into the Hall in July.

No matter what the cap looks like.

  • Christine

    I’m a day late in reading this, but good (and rationale) thoughts on this, and I agree with you. I understand completely why he did this. The “tied for first” reminder is a good one. Since I’m old and remember his days with the White Sox, his success there in 1983 really was a big deal. First, it was huge news that Jerry Reinsdorf had hired someone young and without big league experience, plus a guy with a law degree. That’s the first thing I remember hearing about him — that he was a lawyer. Plus that 1983 team doing so well and making it to the postseason was the first time since 1959 the Sox had done that (and the first time a Chicago baseball team had). Even as a Cubs fan in ’83, I was well aware of how well the Sox were doing. And I think what TLR and Dave Duncan too started with the Sox laid the foundation for their success once they moved on to Oakland.

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