Tony La Russa retired Monday, three days after winning the World Series for a third time and ending a 33-year managerial career in which he ranked third on Major League Baseball's all-time wins list. It would appear in baseball, as in life, everything comes in threes.
Three words that best describe La Russa? Slick. Smart. Successful.
I have vivid memories of managers I have interviewed in the field -- the setting, the circumstance, sometimes even what we talked about -- best described as snapshot images stored in my sports-minded brain. But I have only vague, unremarkable recollections of my encounters with La Russa.
Such is the impression he left on me, but not necessarily on baseball as a whole which, no doubt, will remember him as one of its most fascinating figures.
There was always an air of mystery to La Russa, a skipper not necessarily misunderstood but not completely understood either.
Maybe La Russa isn't etched in my memory because, unlike the most beloved managers, he wasn't a character. He wasn't as whimsical as Sparky Anderson or as mercurial as Billy Martin or as volcanic as Earl Weaver or even as comical as Don Zimmer.
La Russa was the thinking man's manager -- astute, slick and forever striving to impose his will on the outcome from the dugout. Few understood baseball and the subtleties of the field manager's role in it better than he did, and he liked it that way because it kept both players and reporters on their toes.
It was as if he revelled in being the smartest man in the room.
La Russa was widely considered a diamond mastermind with, in the words of ESPN baseball columnist Jayson Stark, "Einstein-esque brain power." Bobby Cox might have managed more consistently and Joe Torre might have handled pressure with more aplomb, but La Russa could push the right buttons with the best of peers, especially come playoff time.
La Russa is often credited with shaping modern bullpen use, parading out relievers in record numbers to get the right matchup at the right time. He didn't just break the American League mark for pitching changes in a season, he obliterated it. While we all whined about the endless pitching changes, he went about affirming relief pitching as a specialist pursuit, successfully so.
Such is the subtlety of his baseball legacy.
But baseball being a game of numbers, what people will likely remember most is La Russa's statistical success. As a manager, he compiled Hall of Fame credentials with 2,798 regular-season wins -- 500-plus with each of the White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals -- and 70 post-season wins resulting in six pennants.
And, of course, three World Series titles.
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