Keeping Score

Tony La Russa Retires: A Manager’s Unconventional, Defiant Success

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Elise Amendola / Getty Images

Manager Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals

After 33 seasons as a big-league manager, and three World Series wins, the man who loves making pitching changes has given himself the hook.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, fresh off his team’s exhilarating World Series victory over the Texas Rangers, announced his retirement on Monday morning. La Russa, 67, is surely headed to the Hall of Fame – he won 2,728 games over his career, good for third all-time. La Russa was never the most lovable sports figure. His constant tinkering dragged out games and gave fans headaches. He could come across as arrogant, and back in 2009, he even filed a strange lawsuit against Twitter because of a fake La Russa account someone created (he soon dropped it). He was arrested for DUI in 2007, and La Russa’s field sobriety test, which went public, was embarrassing.

Some people were upset when La Russa, along with star player Albert Pujols, attended Glenn Beck’s politically-charged “Restoring Honor” rally in August of 2010. In the late 1980s, La Russa managed the Bash Brothers – now admitted steroid users Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco – in Oakland, and later McGwire in St. Louis, where he broke Roger Maris’ season-single home run record in 1998. Despite La Russa’s denials, some critics will always believe that he knew about his players’ steroid use, or should have been aware of it. When La Russa hired McGwire as the St. Louis hitting coach in 2009, the move reeked of defiance.

(LIST: Top 10 World Series Moments)

However you feel about La Russa, you can’t dispute his success. Since he began his managerial career with the Chicago White Sox in 1979, his teams have reached the post-season 14 times. And La Russa’s strategy (begun in earnest with his outstanding Oakland teams) of using relief specialists to retire just a batter or two late in games, and deploying his closer for just a single inning, changed baseball.

La Russa had an unconventional background for a manager. Many skippers were graying, tobacco-spittin’ former players who looked ridiculous wearing a big-league uniform. La Russa, mostly a minor league player who hit .199 during very brief big-league stints with the Kansas City Athletics, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs between 1963-1973, pursued a law degree when his playing days were over. He passed the bar and contemplated a law career, but pursued a managing career instead.

He was quickly promoted through Chicago’s minor league system, and White Sox owner Bill Veeck, no stranger to unusual moves — Veeck was the man who sent 3’ 7” Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951 in order to draw a walk — made La Russa, 34, the youngest manager in the majors. (Check out this, dare I say, endearing appearance by La Russa on the game show To Tell The Truth). La Russa won a division title in Chicago in 1983, and a World Series with Oakland in 1989. He also lost two World Series with the A’s, to inferior Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds teams, in 1988 and 1990, respectively.

He took over the Cardinals in 1996, and immediately led them to their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. La Russa would become the all-time winningest manager in the distinguished history of the Cardinals, make the playoffs nine times, and win it all in 2006 and 2011.  In 1991, La Russa and his wife Elaine founded the Animal Rescue Foundation, which connects pet owners with abandoned dogs and cats.

LaRussa seemed humorless. Yet, the last moments of his managerial career will be remembered for a comic blunder. In Game 5 of this year’s World Series, Cards reliever Jason Motte did not make an appearance when the game was tied at 2-2, in the eighth inning. Why? As La Russa explained to baffled reporters afterwards, the St. Louis bullpen coach, twice, couldn’t hear LaRussa’s phone instructions to warm up Motte over the Texas crowd noise. The Cardinals lost the game. To the conspiracy theorists among us, this explanation will always sound fishy. (Coach Derek Lilliquist apparently mixed up the names “Motte” and “Lynn,” even though they sound nothing alike.)

But here’s hoping that La Russa, in his golden years, has some fun the whole affair. He can become a phone company pitchman. Or lead the charge to bring text messaging into dugouts and bullpens. La Russa can enjoy poking fun at himself. That’s easy to do when you’re a winner.

MORE: How the St. Louis Cardinals Got All Mixed Up

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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