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Monday, October 31, 2011
A diversion for Tony La Russa

A veteran infielder joined the Cardinals years ago, after 10 years in the major leagues, and on the day of St. Louis' first exhibition game of the spring, he crossed paths with Tony La Russa in the dugout.

"Tony, how you doing today?" the player asked, meaning it as a greeting.

For Tony La Russa, the focus rarely waivered from the task at hand.

"We'll know in three hours," La Russa responded sternly, referring to the time it would play that day's game.

He compartmentalized his life in this way for years, disciplining himself to think about one season at a time, one series, one inning, one pitching change. In recent years, the Cardinals have tried to feel him out about his future plans, and he deflected those conversations because he wanted to focus on the task at hand -- the three hours of baseball to be played that day. Then La Russa would go home for a couple of weeks, mull over what he wanted to do, before committing to the latest in what had become a series of one-year deals.

So it shouldn't surprise any of us that his retirement comes so suddenly. The decision had been on his mind for weeks, but he wasn't going to think about it -- much less talk about it -- until he was finished managing the last out, the last strike.

After the Cardinals won arguably the greatest World Series game in history last week, La Russa was asked the next day about how he would process the euphoria of being part of a game for the ages -- while preparing for the next game, that night. And it was clear he had thought through all of that.

"I learned early on, you've got to enjoy the moment," he said, sitting in the press room at Busch Stadium. "One of the problems that coaches tell you all the time" -- and by "you," La Russa seemed to be referring to himself -- "you don't enjoy the wins like you suffer the losses, and there's a lot of truth to that. You lose, the next day you can't put it away, you win and it's usually easy because you're worried about the next one. Winning a game like that, it's harder, especially the significance. I mean, it's really hard. I can't imagine it being harder.

One of the problems that coaches tell you all the time, you don't enjoy the wins like you suffer the losses, and there's a lot of truth to that.

-- Tony La Russa

"But I think I rely on -- we're trying to rely on the club. The first job that we have today is putting yesterday aside to be remembered later. So since I'm one of the ones on the staff that gives that message, as soon as I got stirring this morning, [I] refused to think about last night. You control your mind. That's what we're trying to do as a team. The fans are happy with it, you just -- this is a dead-even competition, and you cannot be distracted by last night."

He cannot manage any other way, living in these three-hour windows from February to October; either he's all in, or not in at all. Joe Torre liked to hang out with visitors in his office before games, and he pursued outside interests, but La Russa had never seemed comfortable with those kinds of diversions, lest they compromise the manner in which he ran his ballclub.

It's not a coincidence that some of his closest friends have been Bob Knight and Bill Parcells, two others who seem similar in personality: competitive, focused and devoted to success. Knight and Parcells walked away from coaching. And now La Russa is.

Soon he will have to make some time for a visit to Cooperstown, N.Y., where he will inevitably be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. La Russa finishes his career with more wins than any manager in the last three quarters of a century, and while he had his critics, and engendered some tense rivalries with the likes of Dusty Baker, there was not a manager who viewed him as anything less than the model tactician. La Russa was an innovator, in the way he used relievers, in the way he structured a lineup.

La Russa mentioned jokingly in his press conference in St. Louis Monday that he might open a bookstore, and you could understand why that would be attractive to someone who has been so structured in a life run according to the relentless baseball calendar. You can imagine him sitting in a corner browsing through the newest history book, unencumbered by a clock or a schedule -- relaxing.