La Russa: Players a key issue
By Derrick Goold
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Sep. 12 2007
CINCINNATI — When he decides whether he wants to return as Cardinals manager for next season, Tony La Russa said he'll have to determine if the stresses of this season have frayed or weakened his relationship with his cornerstone players.
"There have been periods this year when we have struggled — where I had to honestly let the team know we had to keep pushing," La Russa said Tuesday. "The product of that could be some strained relationships. There may have been some people who got their feelings hurt. If there is a lingering effect, that's
La Russa has declined often to talk specifically about his expiring contract and whether he wants to return to the Cardinals for a 13th season. Both ownership and general manager Walt Jocketty have said they hope to re-sign LaRussa, but he has deflected such overtures to the offseason.
Still, the topic of his future is a recurring theme of the present — stoked again Tuesday by an article in USA Today that implied he's considering, in the words of the reporter, "a change of scenery." La Russa, who became the winningest manager in Cardinals history earlier this month, did not refute that
notion, saying instead he plans to go through his usual audit before making a commitment.
"First thought, can you honestly, realistically look at the next year and make the commitment you need to make?" La Russa said. "If the answer is no, then you don't need to go through the whole process. If it's yes, (one of the questions to ask) is there an alternative that is a better fit?"
La Russa likened this decision to the one he faced after the 2004 season, when his contract expired after the Cardinals' trip to their first World Series with him as manager. He said he'd follow a "similar formula" to come to a conclusion. That includes gauging whether he has the focus for it, whether he thinks the organization isn't numb to him after a dozen years, whether he likes the direction of the franchise and whether the players will respond to him.
He said the last litmus test is the difference between 2004 and now.
To describe the role he's played at times during this flawed season, La Russa used the analogy of a new manager coming into a clubhouse to spur an underachieving team.
"It's very common when you're doing that, that you ruffle some feathers, you get their attention," he said. "There are some strained feelings, some touchy times. Happened in Chicago (with the White Sox). Happened in Oakland. Happened in St. Louis (in '96). It's been a pretty nice run in the 2000s. The core group. The respect. The mutual respect. The relationships. But this year, we've had a lot of tests.
"That, to me, is the only difference between '04 and '07. That's why I think the 'player responding' part of that formula is important."
The manager declined to discuss specific examples, saying only that he "pushed" during team meetings.
La Russa has long quoted several of his friends in the coaching fraternity about a leader's message or approach growing stale after a number of years. It can go stale to owners, to fans, to players.
He said after 12 years with the Cardinals he is not sure shelf life applies in his current position. The linchpin elements of his decision to return is whether he's satisfied with the direction of the franchise, which is increasingly looking to develop players from within, and if he is comfortable with his relationship with the core players.
After describing his "formula," he concluded with an allusion.
"I don't see a whole lot of alternatives," he said. "There are not a lot of places that I could go manage. People wonder where I'm going to manage. The real question is where is Dave (Duncan) going to be the pitching coach? And find out if they need a manager. Because I want to sign on there."
Duncan has a contract with the Cardinals through 2008.