KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One more lineup card for Tony La Russa to fill out. One more chance to put on the uniform.
One more time is enough, too.
The man who went out on top last fall after leading the St. Louis Cardinals to an improbable World Series championship, and now is getting a unique encore, swears he doesn’t miss managing. He insists it’s a lot more fun watching the game from the stands or on TV, where he can do all the second-guessing instead of answering questions about why he yanked his starter in the sixth inning for a pinch hitter who grounded into a double play.
“I don’t miss it at all,” La Russa said. “Now, I’m never wrong.”
That doesn’t mean the 67-year-old La Russa isn’t taking his job as NL manager in the All-Star Game seriously.
La Russa always plays to win, no matter the stakes.
“I don’t know if there are any people more competitive than Tony,” Cardinals All-Star Matt Holliday said. “He’s right at the top of the list.”
La Russa unveiled perhaps his biggest All-Star decision Monday, choosing Giants ace Matt Cain to start for the NL ahead of Mets 12-game winner R.A. Dickey. The move pairs Cain with teammate Buster Posey, the NL’s starting catcher.
The plan calls for Dickey to go in the first part of the game with the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz, who can get a handle on his knuckleball during warmups.
“R.A., he got picked. He’s going to pitch,” La Russa said. “The fact he’s not the starting pitcher doesn’t in my opinion detract at all.”
La Russa had Cardinals leadoff man Rafael Furcal batting ninth in his first All-Star start, referring to him as his second leadoff man. La Russa often batted his pitcher eighth if he had another speedy, singles-hitting type of player to put at the bottom of the order to jump-start the second time through.
Noting the National League team has four third basemen, the Cardinals’ David Freese knew he’d better come prepared.
“Who knows where I’ll end up?” Freese said. “I might need some catching gear. Who knows?”
Whatever moves La Russa makes, it won’t be for the novelty. The Cardinals certainly benefited from home-field advantage last fall when they beat the Texas Rangers in Game 7 in St. Louis, but no stakes are required.
Clearly, La Russa is appreciative of this curtain call. He’s just the fourth inactive manager to lead an All-Star team, and the first since Bob Lemon in 1979 after being fired as manager of the New York Yankees. He’ll do his best not to disappoint anybody while remembering he’s a baseball fan, too.
La Russa will make it a point to get the Braves’ Chipper Jones, who is retiring after the season, into the game. He said he’d be “shocked” if the Cubs’ Bryan LaHair doesn’t get an at-bat. He was disappointed the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton couldn’t make it because of arthroscopic knee surgery, saying “Stanton would have lit this place up.”
No matter. There’s plenty of talent for the old manager to sift through.
Indians closer Chris Perez began his career with the Cardinals and recalled La Russa being demanding on everyone, but particularly tough on young players. He joked that when you played for La Russa “you’re a rookie until you get to free agency.”
He couldn’t recall ever being at the ballpark, early or late, when La Russa wasn’t on hand supervising the scene.
“He’s there from 7 a.m. to midnight,” Perez said. “Sometimes he sleeps there, I think. That tells you why he was so successful.”
The bottom line was always clear with La Russa, who always answered the innocent game-day greeting of “How are you doing?” with “I’ll let you know in a few hours.”
“He doesn’t care about feelings, he doesn’t care about what happened at home. You’re here to win,” Perez said. “No excuses, no nonsense.
“What else can I say? Intimidating. You have to respect him.”
White Sox slugger Adam Dunn played for the Cincinnati Reds for several years and remembered La Russa as the guy in the opposing dugout that you absolutely hated. He’ll forever wonder why La Russa would call for left-hander Steve Kline to neutralize him, even if the score was 8-1.
“You really didn’t like playing against him, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully,” Dunn said. “They would always do something to shake it up. You never knew what to expect and he never took the foot off the pedal.”
No matter the circumstances, La Russa never let up.
“Urgency, he always talks about that word,” Freese said. “No matter what job you have, it’s about getting it done. And being good at what you do.”
Freese became an impact player on La Russa’s watch, winning the NL championship and World Series MVP awards last fall. He gives his old manager a lot of the credit for helping him mature as a person, too.
“It’s a privilege to have played for Tony. He’s taught me a lot, not only about baseball but about being a man, and you’ve got to embrace that,” Freese said. “Bottom line, he deserves this.”