"It's very clear that he's unhappy," La Russa said during his scheduled media availability session at baseball's annual Winter Meetings. "And I'm making it clear that I don't understand why he's unhappy. I told somebody the other day, I can make a list of 50 respect points that this man has been given by our organization. It's time for him to give back.
"He's got a contract to play, and we need him to play. And he's going to be treated very honestly. If he plays hard and plays as well as he can, he plays. If he doesn't, he'll sit. If he doesn't like it, he can quit."
More than a year of tension between Rolen and La Russa bubbled over in October when La Russa was re-hired on a new two-year contract to continue managing the Redbirds. At that time, Rolen contacted then-interim general manager John Mozeliak and requested that the club explore trade options for him.
The Cardinals have done so, but they find themselves unsatisfied with the offers before them. The Brewers have been among the most active pursuers of Rolen, and St. Louis has also talked to the Dodgers, among other teams, but the Cardinals feel most of the proposals offer them only a few cents on the dollar.
If that's the case, Mozeliak insists that the club will not make a move, and thus player and manager would come to camp with plenty of unresolved frustration. La Russa professed bafflement at the personality conflict. Rolen's agents did not return messages left on Wednesday.
"I've had a long career," La Russa said, "and I can't remember ever being as a combination of mystified and concerned as I am about this situation. Because speaking for any level of the organization, he has received first-class consideration, respect, gratuities."
Mostly, though, the manager drove home his point that for the two parties to coexist, it is Rolen, and not La Russa, who must budge.
"In the end, I just simplify it," he said. "I think he has put some things together in his mind, and I think he needs to understand that the Cardinals have given him a lot since he's been here. He's been given a contract. He's been given a couple World Series appearances. He's been given a world championship. And he's given back some, but he needs to give back more. We need him."
Of course, such public comments do not simplify the situation, but rather complicate it. Any further indication that the clubhouse situation is sour can only decrease St. Louis' leverage in trade negotiations, as other clubs look to take advantage of the discord. And if Rolen does return, peaceful coexistence looks less likely than before.
"I think he's strong-minded enough that I don't see his opinion changing on a personal basis," La Russa said. "And it's gotten to the point that I don't care. What I care about is that he re-establish his stature as a Major League productive star. And that's one of the points I've tried to make to him.
"We've had issues where guys are saying, 'What's going on with Scott?' And he needs to understand that he's slipped, not in his play, but just in the way he's perceived as being the Scott we've known for a few years. And I think that means a lot to him. He can play mad every day if he wants to. It's OK."
Mozeliak said, however, that at least some of the burden falls on the manager to make sure that clubhouse problems do not get out of hand.
"Obviously the manager of the team is the one that oversees those 25 men," Mozeliak said. "So he definitely has a lot of responsibility in that role. Tony and I have had discussions on it, but I would say I do trust him in how he will approach it. But at the end of the day, both parties will have to have some compromise to make it fit, to make it successful."
Beyond the personality issues, the trouble for the Cardinals is that Rolen's struggles and physical problems in 2007 have diminished his trade value. St. Louis has seen Rolen at his best, and both La Russa and Mozeliak relish the thought of a return to form by the seven-time Gold Glover and three-time 30-homer man.
"One of our important needs for next year is somebody to hit behind Albert [Pujols] that's a force," La Russa said. "And I look at our club and it's either Jim [Edmonds] or Scott. And I just think if you use Chris [Duncan] or Rick [Ankiel] there, that's asking those guys to do something that they shouldn't do in 2008.
"So we'll make our inquiries, but the whole idea isn't to please Scott. It's to take care of the St. Louis Cardinals. And I keep saying it, I don't understand. I told him this. He's never given me an explanation. I don't understand why he can be down on the Cardinals, and I don't understand why he can be down on me."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.