Bob Lutz: Even in retirement, La Russa still stirs the pot

07/09/2012 12:00 AM

07/10/2012 1:41 PM

Tony La Russa is catching grief for the decisions he makes.

Well, what else is new?

Despite being arguably the most successful manager in St. Louis Cardinals history – and doing pretty darn well during stints with Oakland and the Chicago White Sox, too – there’s something about La Russa that causes people to pull their hair out.

Good thing he’s retired, huh?

Oh, wait a minute. He’s not totally retired. At the behest of MLB commissioner Bud Selig, La Russa was named to manage the National League in tonight’s All-Star game at Kauffman Stadium even though he hung ‘em up after the Cardinals’ remarkable run to the 2011 world championship.

And if you think La Russa is taking this responsibility lightly, you don’t know La Russa.

He’s ruffled the feathers of the Cincinnati Reds by not picking pitcher Johnny Cueto or second baseman Brandon Phillips to the NL’s All-Star squad. Just so happens that Cueto and Phillips were two of the mainstays involved in an ugly bench-clearing brawl with the Cardinals during the 2010 season, a fight in which Cardinals’ back-up catcher Jason Larue was kicked in the head by Cueto and forced to retire from the game.

Then, when Miami Marlins outfielder Gioncarlo Stanton was forced to drop out of the All-Star game because of an injured knee, La Russa did not pick another Marlin to take his place, leaving Florida as the only team not represented in Kansas City.

Finally, La Russa spurned New York Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey as the National League’s starting pitcher, instead going with Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants. The New York media is up in arms over La Russa’s decision.

It’s as if he never left.

“I am very aware of the first half Dickey has had,” La Russa said, promising that the Mets’ pitcher, who has given baseball one of the best stories of the season by going 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA at the age of 37, would be on the mound during the first half of tonight’s game. “The one edge I thought we would have that made sense is that we have Buster Posey (Cain’s teammate with the Giants) catching and Matt is equally legitimate as far as getting the honor to start.’’

Cain, by the way, is 9-3 with a 2.62 ERA and pitched a perfect game against the Houston Astros on June 13. It’s not like he’s a slouch.

But there are surely people who resent La Russa’s involvement in tonight’s game, given that he’s no longer managing. He’s also brought along his long-time pitching coach, Dave Duncan, who has left the Cardinals to tend to his sick wife. But the boys are back for this one, including first-base coach Dave McKay and bench coach Joe Pettini, who now work for the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros after serving on La Russa’s staff in St. Louis.

The Cardinals’ All-Stars who played for La Russa are eager to re-unite, too.

“I’ve never been around a more competitive guy,’’ said third baseman David Freese, the hero of the 2011 World Series. “When I think about Tony I think about the word ‘urgency.’ He always talks about that word and I think whether you’re in baseball or not, whatever job you have, it’s always about urgency, getting it done.’’

Freese, who first joined the Cardinals for 17 games in 2009, said he appreciates La Russa’s loyalty to him during difficult times, both on and off the field. He said he talks with his former manager frequently.

“The world is about relationships and those are the things you’ve got to build on,’’ Freese said. “The fact that I got to the big leagues and played under Tony is a privilege. He’s one of the greatest managers in the history of the game and he taught me a lot not only about baseball, but about being a man.’’

Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal, who will start and bat ninth — or as La Russa said Monday “the second leadoff position’’ — was acquired by the Cardinals in a trade-deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. But in his brief time playing for La Russa, he gained an appreciation.

“He’s one of the smartest managers I ever played for,’’ said Furcal, who started his career playing for Bobby Cox in Atlanta. “He definitely knows how to manage and I’m excited to get to play for him one last time.’’

It’s hard to know what La Russa’s impact on an All-Star game, during which so many substitutions are made, can be. But he’ll find a way to maximize whatever impact he has.

“He’ll be really prepared and he’ll try to win this game,’’ said Cardinals left fielder and National League reserve Matt Holliday, who played 2 ½ seasons for La Russa. “He’ll do everything he can to try and give the National League an advantage. Tony will be ready. No doubt about it.”

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