Saturday, September 22, 2012

#216 Tony LaRussa - Chicago White Sox

If you exclude the team photo cards in '80 and '81, this is Tony LaRussa's first Topps manager card.  He had three cards as a player with his rookie issue coming way back in 1964.  To me LaRussa looks a bit dazed and confused in this photo.
Player:  Tony LaRussa reached the majors in 1963 with the Kansas City A's when he was just 18 and batted .250 in 44 at bats.  He didn't resurface again until 1968.  He never was a regular in the majors and had only 176 at bats in his career.  All but seven at bats came for the A's as he had very brief stops with the Braves and Cubs.  In parts of six seasons he batted .199/.292/.250
Manager:  LaRussa was hired by the White Sox to manage their double-A team in Knoxville in 1978.  With two months left in the '79 season the White Sox season, they promoted LaRussa, by then at AAA, to manage the big club.  The White Sox won half of their remaining games but finished in fifth place. 
A 90 loss season followed in 1980 but better days were on the horizon.  The Pale Hose finished just over .500 in '81 and won 87 in 1982.  The '83 squad won 99 games and walked away with the AL West, outpacing the second place Royals by 20 games.  Chicago lost in the ALCS to Baltimore three games to one.  LaRussa was recognized with the AL Manager of the Year award.  Things fell apart in '84 as Chicago won just 74 games.  The ChiSox improved to 85 wins in '85 but when they started 26-38 in '86 LaRussa was given the axe.
LaRussa was not out of work long as the Oakland A's tabbed him as their new manager less than a month after he left Chicago.  He took over a  31-52 team and they won 45 of their last 79 games.  The A's were .500 in '87 but soon emerged as the AL's best team.  They won 306 games over the next three seasons, won the pennant each year, and beat the Giants in the '89 World Series.
The A's had one more first place finish under LaRussa, but after back to back sub .500 seasons in '94 and '95, and an ownership change, he left for St. Louis.  Under LaRussa's guidance the Cards alternated winning and losing seasons from '96 to '99.  Then starting in 2000 they won 95, 93, and 97 but failed to advance to the World Series despite making the postseason each year.  A third place finish was a setback in 2003.  The Redbirds won 105 games and the NL pennant in 2004 but were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.  They returned to the playoffs with a 100 win season in 2005 but lost in the NLCS to the Astros.
LaRussa may have saved his best managing for the last six years of his career.  With a team without nearly as much firepower as the two previous years, he led the 2006 Cardinals to another NL Central crown.  The team won only 83 regular season games but ended up winning it all against my beloved Tigers in the World Series. 
After a sub-.500 2007 season the Cardinals would win 86 to 91 games over the next four seasons.  The 2011 team surged at the end of the year and squeaked into the postseason.  Once again underdogs, the Cards took out the Phillies and Brewers to reach to World Series.  LaRussa overcame some blunders and St. Louis defeated Rangers to earn their second championship in six years.  LaRussa soon retired and with 2,728 career wins he ranks third all-time behind icons Connie Mack and John McGraw.
Flipside:  LaRussa was able to amass so many wins because he was a great manager and had great players but it sure helped that he began his managing career at age 33. 
Oddball:  LaRussa was involved in baseball for so long there are a number of things to mention.  His law degree from Florida State, his Animal Rescue Program (ARF), his lineups that often placed the pitcher in the 8th spot, and the bullpen mishap in the 2011 World Series are just a few notable oddities.
History:  LaRussa won a World Series with both American and National League teams and is one of the all-time greats.  Along with longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, LaRussa is credited with the advancement of the specialized use of the bullpen.

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