When Tony La Russa decided to hang up his managerial cleats, he did so on his own terms. He walked away from the sport on top of the game, accolades falling at his feet as he walked off into the sunset of a World Series victory.
Terry Francona is expected to interview to be La Russa’s replacement, but perhaps Francona should think twice before jumping at a chance to guide the Cardinals to their World Series defense.
The Cardinals’ team La Russa leaves behind is at a crossroads. They may very well lose Albert Pujols to free agency. World Series Game 7 hero Chris Carpenter will be back, but he is coming off a career high in innings pitched and turns 37 next April. The team’s second ace, Adam Wainwright, missed all of the past season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and probably won’t be ready for the start of next season.
All those question marks? All the uncertainty? Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth for Francona.
If Albert Pujols stays, then great. You have the best hitter in baseball. If not, does anybody look at that Cardinals team the same way? Does a lineup starring Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman scare anybody in 2012?
As it stands, the Cardinals already needed every bounce to go their way to win the World Series.
The Braves’ top two starters, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, had to suffer injuries to cost Atlanta the wild card. They did. On top of that, the Phillies needed to play all of their starters in the final series of the regular season to knock the Braves out. They did.
It needed to rain before Game 6 of the World Series so Carpenter could get an extra day’s rest. It did. Nelson Cruz needed to forget what “no doubles” defense entails. He did.
The Cardinals caught every break, and that only fed into the unique aura La Russa created with his managerial style. When things worked out, he was the genius at the middle of the success. When they didn’t, it was just a matter of blaming the bullpen phone.
Will Francona be afforded the same slack from Cardinals fans that La Russa earned over the course of his Hall of Fame career? Unlikely.
That’s not to say Francona might not someday end up in the Hall of Fame himself or that he could earn that trust eventually. He might. But considering the way the Red Sox ended their season and the way the Cardinals ended theirs, will reminders of each team’s previous year prove too much?
Will an empty can in the Cardinals’ recycling bin set off an investigation of the clubhouse culture under Francona’s watch? Conversely, will every pitching change be measured up against what La Russa might have done?
The fans in St. Louis rank among the most passionate in all of baseball. They will be expecting the most out of their team, and rightfully so. But in the wake of how the 2011 season ended for both Francona and the Cardinals, Tito might not get a fair shake.
Terry Francona deserves a fresh start after leaving Boston with two World Series rings. He might not find one in St. Louis. That will be Tony La Russa’s team for the foreseeable future, with or without La Russa at the helm.