Print and Go Back ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2005 [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 19, 2005
La Russa sets calming tone for Cards

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Tony La Russa, a man with the gravitas to actually make the comparison, said this about Albert Pujols' home run: "It would be tied for first with the most dramatic home runs that have ever been hit."

And I believe that, even if you grant that for it to be remembered forever, the Cardinals probably need to win two more games. But dramatic? Beyond dramatic.

All of which is precisely why La Russa's statement is either unintentionally hilarious or incredibly instructive. Here's why: It's coming from the least expressive man in the building.

Did you see La Russa in the historic moment the other night? It was one of the great all-time stone jobs. Inside the Cardinals' dugout, it was pandemonium and genuine shock -- people flying around, dancing on the steps, wide-eyed in the way that sports can actually make you kid-like every once in a great while.

But not the master. La Russa watched the flight of the ball, saw its trajectory, and -- I swear this is what it looks like -- was already fiddling with his lineup card or his pitcher/batter matchups before the ball even ricocheted off the facade out beyond left field at Minute Maid Park.

No reaction. None. La Russa looked like he was on his way to an audit. Remarkably, a day later, he told reporters in St. Louis, "I don't know if anybody remembers getting on the plane [home]. It was kind of magical, an unbelievable set of circumstances, so you're trying to pinch yourself."

It's a great visual image. But, again, it has almost nothing in common with the La Russa you saw that night -- or the man, now that I mention it, whom you've seen over the last few years in St. Louis.

One of the interesting side notes if the Cardinals come all the way back and win this thing -- and, deservedly so, it's strictly a side note -- is whether you'll ever be able to observe La Russa taking joy from it. I know this: If you can't allow yourself at least an instant of dizzy-headed glee over something as immediately significant as Pujols' blast, there may be no future for you in the Emotive Hall of Fame.

But in a roundabout way, maybe Pujols hits that home run because La Russa is who he is as a manager. Maybe the Cards don't panic, down 4-2 with two out in the ninth inning on the road against arguably the best closer in the game, precisely because Tony La Russa's emotional range as manager doesn't allow for free-form nervous expression.

If you want to see something almost as impressive as Pujols' home run, go back to the video and observe Pujols' expression during that at-bat. He stands in against Brad Lidge, and Pujols is just the embodiment of professional calm and concentration. His body barely moves at all. The swing on the home run is pure, of course, but it is also almost routine in its execution. Maybe Albert Pujols, as great as he is, also has a little La Russa in him. David Eckstein, too, for that matter.

As much as it drives me crazy to see a lifetime baseball guy like La Russa deny himself even a momentary pleasure -- and at something considered an instant historic moment in the sport -- it really is possible that he's just past the stage of depending upon any single event to get him to where he wants his team to be. La Russa was the manager in the other dugout for Kirk Gibson's home run off Dennis Eckersley in 1988, and he has certainly had his share of other baseball disappointments alongside his successes.

Maybe, if you're La Russa, there is no one moment that's going to do it. Maybe the man smiles only if the Cardinals get it all.

Speaking on Tuesday, La Russa wouldn't even really allow that Pujols' shot had given his team momentum heading into Wednesday's sixth game. The manager recited Earl Weaver's oft-repeated notion that the momentum for Game 6 would depend almost entirely on the starting pitchers, Mark Mulder for La Russa and Roy Oswalt for Houston manager Phil Garner.

"With the off day [between games], we turn the page," La Russa said. "By turning the page, it comes down to Mulder and Oswalt, as it does every game in the league. The starting pitcher has the opportunity to establish that."

So it's back to the pitchers -- just like "every game in the league," in Tony La Russa's world. It is a world of unbending calm and the steadfast refusal to give in emotionally -- not even to one of the greatest moments imaginable. It isn't that what Pujols did wasn't great. It's just, you figure, that Tony La Russa chooses to wait for a moment that is even greater.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com