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Tony La Russa Addresses Coaching Changes and Criticism of Mike Matheny

We had the chance to talk with Tony La Russa on Friday morning’s “Bernie Show.” As always, a conversation with TLR is a great way to spend 15 minutes.

I frequently wrote about La Russa during his 16 seasons as the Cardinals’ manager. We had our share of arguments, and he probably wanted to swing a bat in the general direction of my head at times … but that didn’t matter. We moved on from it. And those disputes matter even less now.

I miss being able to go into La Russa’s office for in-depth baseball talk. When I had a sincere question about successful game strategy or decisions that went wrong, La Russa was always expansive and informative.  If their was something I didn’t understand about how the outfielders were positioned, or how he knew it was the right time and circumstances to signal for a hit-and-run, La Russa was ready with a keen explanation. In my eternal quest to learn as much as possible about baseball — and my curiosity will never end — it was a treasure to have a thoughtful Hall of Fame manager as a resource.

La Russa ranks third in major-league history with 2,728 career regular-season wins. TLR is the Cardinals’ all-time winningest manager with 1,408 regular-season victories. During his 16 seasons, 1996 through 2011, the Cardinals led the National League with 50 postseason wins and competed in the most postseason games (92.) Only the New York Yankees did better in each category.

La Russa’s STL teams went to the postseason nine times, won three NL pennants, and added two World Series championships to the substantial legacy Cardinals’ baseball.

La Russa also caught plenty of flak when the Cardinals missed making the playoffs, or came up short in the postseason. And that was no minor thing. La Russa didn’t win his first NL pennant here until his ninth season (2004). He didn’t capture the World Series title until his 11th year. But he had the perfect ending to cap 2011 and his term in office: his defiant team rallying repeatedly to survive the Texas Rangers in Game 6 to avoid elimination …  rallying again to take Game 7 and win the World Series for the second time in six seasons … announcing his retirement the morning after the Cardinals’ World Series parade.

After spending several seasons in  the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks, La Russa moved to the Boston Red Six to accept a VP role and assist his longtime friend and baseball associate Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball of baseball operations.

Here are a few excerpts from our interview with La Russa:

La Russa on the criticism of  Cards manager Mike Matheny from fans and media: 

“I just know that it comes with the territory, and the only time you don’t get it is when fans don’t care. And one of the things that is for sure about St. Louis is fans care,” La Russa said. “And as Bernie can attest, we didn’t win every year and there were years that people were very unhappy with me.  If that bothers you, you have to go do something else for a living. Mike is certainly a tough enough guy to go about his business.

“I just look at, if you take his year one, to going into 2018, I mean he’s has had incredible success. And every once in a while even what’s a tough year is still a very good year for a lot of (managers.)

“I just think that fans being opinionated, for or against, is just a part of it. And you just do your job and let people have their opinions that they’re going to have. You just got to really look in the mirror and do your very best, and that’s either good enough or not.”

La Russa on the high standards and pressure that come with managing or playing in St. Louis: 

“The way I always looked at it is suppose you went to a team that doesn’t have a realistic chance to be a winning club and play meaningful games in September, well, you won’t have the same kind of pressure and expectations but that’s not really fun at all,” TLR said. “That’s survival and you’re grinding, the fact that you’re playing in an organization that has some resources and has a history of winning is really a positive because there are reasons why that success is there and there are reasons why those expectations are there. You look at the positive parts of it and you accept the pressure.”

La Russa on the Cardinals missing the playoffs in 2016 and 2017: 

“It would bother me more if the Cardinals had been good for several years because they had a real good crew of young guys, and they didn’t have the resources to keep them, which happens to a lot of teams,” he said.  “And then they have to start selling them off and wait another four or five years to retool, and that’s not the way the Cardinals are. They they have the resources to keep competitive.

“You think about it, a couple of years ago they missed (the playoffs) by what, one game? It’s a really healthy situation and it’s so much better to either have limited resources or not a very good team. Pressure is wonderful thing it creates urgency it gets you going, and you’re either good enough or you’re not.”

La Russa on the staff changes that included bringing back coach Jose Oquendo, hiring a new pitching coach in Mike Maddux, bringing Willie McGee aboard for his first big-league coaching job, promoting Mike Shildt to bench coach, and adding a new bullpen coach, Bryan Eversgerd: 

“There’s so much teaching and tweaking that goes on at the Major League level because kids are rushed so fast,” TLR said. “Or you bring in a guy from another organization and you have to try and establish what the philosophy of the current team is that a coaching staff has to be deep and talented, and the manager and staff complement each other.

“What I don’t want to do is answer that question in a way that it reflects negatively on the guys that are not coaching there now…so I am not talking about what they didn’t have before… but right now I was really excited when they brought three guys in that have a history of loving the game and teaching it.

“Willie is Willie, that’s everybody’s favorite, Mike Maddux is an outstanding pitching coach, and last but not least, Jose Oquendo is tied for first with the smartest baseball men I have ever been around.”

La Russa, when asked if the coaching changes would benefit Matheny: 

“I really feel that is a healthy situation not just for Mike but for the players,” he said. “Now part of it will be the responsibility of the players to not have all the answers and pay attention and do the work because they’re the ones that play. But as far as  the help they’ll get from the coaching staff, it’s going to be outstanding and I am sure Mike is going to be in a better place.”

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend…

–Bernie

More: A Look at the 5 Cardinals Pitchers That Have the Most to Prove in 2018