ST. LOUIS — Tony La Russa waited until after the championship parade, then called a team meeting with his players.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said pitcher Chris Carpenter, who won Game 7 of the World Series against Texas on Friday. “I think we all figured it was just going to be like, ‘Thataway guys. Great year. Way to battle!’ Instead, he dropped that on us. I think everybody was caught off guard.”
And with that, the 67-year-old La Russa said goodbye to baseball and became the first manager to retire immediately after leading his team to a Series title — the third of his career.
“I think this just feels like it’s time to end it,” he said Monday. “When I look in the mirror, I know I’d come back for the wrong reasons, and I didn’t want to do that.”
La Russa said he told general manager John Mozeliak of his decision in August — before the Cards rallied from a 10½-game deficit in the National League wild-card race to upset Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the playoffs.
They won the thrilling seven-game Series after twice coming within a strike of elimination in Game 6.
“I tip my hat to him. He’s had a great career. What a way to go out,” Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
The player meeting was short and emotional.
“Some grown men cried,” La Russa said, joking that, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.
La Russa won the World Series with Oakland in 1989, and St. Louis in 2006 and this year, joining Sparky Anderson as the only manager to win with teams in both leagues.
During 33 seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1979-86), Oakland (1986-95) and St. Louis (1996-2011), La Russa compiled a 2,728-2,365 regular-season record. He trails only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) for wins. And his 70 postseason victories are behind only Joe Torre’s 84.
A rare manager with a law degree, La Russa was voted American League Manager of the Year three times, and NL Manager of the Year in 2002. He will be up for consideration for the Hall of Fame in December 2013, at the same time as Torre and Bobby Cox.
“I think you can make a case for him as best of all time. Absolutely,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who coached for La Russa with the White Sox after managing against him in the minors.
Leyland said La Russa was the “total package” as a manager, obsessing over the lineup card, outfoxing opponents during games and refusing to bend to public opinion.
“Terry Francona used to say ‘If you manage for the guys in the seats, pretty soon you’ll be sitting with ’em.’ Tony never worried about that stuff,” Leyland said. “It’s a good lesson for managers.”
La Russa revolutionized the sport while with Oakland, making Dennis Eckersley a one-inning closer. Now, it’s common for all 30 big league teams.
“He’s been an outstanding leader of many different teams under many different circumstances, and that’s hard to do,” said New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, La Russa’s GM with the Athletics.
La Russa had unusual strategies: He started a game with the pitcher batting eighth 432 times. He was renowned for his use of batter-pitcher matchups in determining which reliever to bring in, but also ridiculed “Moneyball” and its emphasis on statistics over human scouting and observation.
Potential successors include Francona, Jim Riggleman and Joe Maddon, who has one year left on his deal in Tampa Bay but has expressed interest in the Cardinals in the past.
La Russa was treated at the Mayo Clinic in May for shingles, which left his face swollen and right eye nearly shut. The manager downplayed his health, saying “it had no bearing on my future.”
La Russa spoke with little emotion at the news conference with one exception, when he paused to compose himself as he thanked his wife, Elaine, and two daughters for putting up with his absence over much of his long tenure.
La Russa often appeared tightlipped during televised postgame news conferences, but behind the scenes the manager showed his sense of humor. He often poked fun at himself for having a .199 batting average during a major league career that consisted of 176 at-bats over 11 years as a utility infielder.