Tony LaRussa managed to go out on top, one of the few in pro sports over the decades who can make that claim. Jim Brown, Pete Sampras. . .the list isn't very long at all.
Had LaRussa's St. Louis Cardinals not won the World Series last week, maybe LaRussa would have come back for more. He says he had already decided several months ago, but there are doubters. Then again, his Cards were such surprise winners that even if Albert Pujols returns, and even if David Freese can be the kind of player during the season he was in the playoffs, St. Louis wouldn't be a shoe-in to even win its division. This really was a one-in-a-career moment.
But they did win, and LaRussa has retired, and all we have left to discuss is his legacy.
In one sense, it's easy to assess.
In another, it's complicated, even a little messy.
The pure numbers say the third most wins all-time of any manager and three World Series titles. Maybe he should have won more than one with Oakland, but then again, two in St. Louis were more than most anticipated. He's one of only nine managers to win three or more titles, and only he and Torre have done it in an era when you have to win three series to win it all.
He doesn't get style points, for his style rubbed many the wrong way. The common refrain was that he was always the smartest guy in the room, and if you didn't know that, he was happy to let you know. He wasn't Sparky and he wasn't genial Joe Torre, and even in St. Louis he wasn't Whitey Herzog, so he earned precious few goodwill points with the opinion makers in the baseball world.
So be it. If there was a lack of style, there was oodles of substance.
So on basic numbers, particularly for one who never had $200 million worth of ballplayers to manage in a single season, LaRussa goes down as one of the best and quite possibly, if not probably, a first ballot Hall of Famer in a strong class in 2014 that will also include candidates like Bobby Cox, Torre, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas.
Me, I don't believe in anyone but the players for any Hall of Fame. It's just too hard to judge the differences. But Cooperstown let's 'em all in, so LaRussa will be a candidate.
For years, there was criticism of LaRussa the self-appointed genius who, despite all his brain power, only had one World Series title with Oakland and should have had at least one more, maybe two. Certainly in Toronto, where many felt Cito Gaston didn't get his just due for winning a pair of world championships with the Blue Jays, LaRussa received no end of snide remarks.
Maybe the titles in St. Louis, however, changed a few minds on that score.
Then there's the steroid issue. LaRussa was there in Oakland when the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, started getting big, and he was most certainly there when McGwire was part of that famous home run race with Sammy Sosa. If LaRussa knew nothing of steroid use on his teams, many would derisively suggest the smartest man in baseball couldn't possibly have been that dumb.
But even if he did know, what should he have done? Steroids and performance enhancing drugs, at that time, were not forbidden by baseball. Can he be blamed for being an onlooker who did nothing if he knew? His job, surely, was to manage, not parent, and it wasn't like he was playing Charlie Francis to a bunch of Ben Johnsons on the diamond.
Those who would not cast a Hall of Fame vote for McGwire, or Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens, for that matter, might be inclined to shun LaRussa, as well.
But those would be the hardliners. Keeping McGwire out has been easy because his numbers are marginal. Keeping Bonds and Clemens out will be next-to-impossible, and beyond that, any campaign to block LaRussa's path would seem, at the very least, extreme.
So it seems his legacy will be safe, and going out on top in the "non-steroid" era leaves little room for debate.