La Russa joins exclusive company

La Russa joins exclusive company

ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa moved into even more rarified managerial territory on Friday night, joining Sparky Anderson as the only managers who have won World Series titles with teams in both leagues.

Anderson got his championships with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and 1976 and the Detroit Tigers in 1984. La Russa won with the 1989 Oakland Athletics and now with the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.

La Russa is third in all-time victories by a manager. He has already had a Hall of Fame-caliber managerial career. But joining Anderson, his friend and mentor, is something special apart from that.

"Well, I mean, I said it once and I'll say it again, I have such a respect and affection for Sparky that I believe he's one of the greatest, not just managers, but baseball men, ambassadors for the game, it's such a great honor, he should really have this alone," La Russa said Friday night after his Cardinals had beaten Detroit to clinch the 2006 Series.

"But I just saw Bob Gibson. When you're around here, especially if you're around here for a while, I just don't feel you can join the club unless you can say you won a World Series. Now we can say this group can join the club."

La Russa said he might not have had a shot at this distinction if it had not been for Anderson's advice.

"I was in the American League, I wanted to stay in the American League," he said. "Sparky, who I respect as much as anyone, told me: 'Before you leave, you've got to manage in the National League. You'll enjoy it.' I did everything else Sparky said, so I assumed I was going to do that."

Typically, La Russa stressed that the accomplishments of this team should be put in the context of the team, not the individual.

"I mean, just ask any coach, it's just not personal," La Russa said. "What you feel is the organization, coaches, we all just work to put guys in position. Players determine how successful you are. I feel great because I mentioned out there, from Day One in San Diego our club had so much life, clubhouse, dugout, no matter the score or circumstances. It was really fun to be around this group. They were so determined. And as we got into it, I actually started getting concerned because they were wanting it so much I didn't want them to be disappointed and they're not."

This will probably be regarded as a more remarkable managing job by La Russa, because the 1989 Oakland team was widely seen as a powerhouse. Those A's swept the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 Series, which was interrupted by an earthquake that devastated the Bay Area.

These Cardinals, with three losing streaks totaling 23 losses during the season, were not even expected to advance in the postseason by most prognosticators. La Russa focused not on how unlikely this triumph might have been, but on how enjoyable it was to work with this team.

"We lost 23 in a row one time, and that wasn't too enjoyable," he said with a smile. "I tell you what I've enjoyed, and it wasn't stuff about the underdog, because those are just labels and people have to make picks. I've enjoyed this from the first [postseason] day in San Diego. I mean the club has really gotten into it. The bench has been alive as good as I've ever been on a team, encouraging, and that's been exciting, that's been fun, to see the guys really pulling hard, trying everything they can."

In the end, people who wanted to attempt the difficult task of poking holes in La Russa's managerial record would look at his postseason record. That isn't going to be possible now. La Russa's take on the postseason is the sensible one, that October baseball measures the team that is playing the best at that moment.

"You know, one of the neat things about this, and that's why you go into it, you realize it, baseball repays the team that plays the best," he said. "And that's why sometimes you get this, sounds like sour grapes, and the team that loses, look at their talent, they beat us, but we're the better team, kind of on paper. But you play better, you win.

"I forget, I was talking to somebody the last couple of days and I knew I had a little understanding of it, but they really kind of trotted out all these teams with the best record that didn't get the final prize, and it just proves it. You get into October, three out of five, four out of seven, a game or two a pivotal. If it goes against you, you can get beat.

"I'll never forget my first experience with that, in '83 I thought we [the White Sox] were a really good club against Baltimore. Baltimore had a really good club and we got beat. In '88 it wasn't that the Dodgers weren't good, they were beat up. [Kirk] Gibson didn't play, [Mike] Scioscia was hurt, they couldn't pitch [Orel] Hershiser right away. We [the A's] had a really good team and they beat us in five. I watched that game, and every time they had to execute, they executed, and we couldn't. I remember, oh yeah, I learned. The team that plays the best wins. And that means they're the best in that game or that series.

"So that's the mystery of these short playoffs. You play better baseball, you have a chance to win."

The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals played better baseball than the Detroit Tigers and so, the Cardinals won the World Series. It was a classic team victory, but in the process it created another piece of managerial history for Tony La Russa.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.