You don't hear the word "genius" used about St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa so much anymore, the way you did in the late 1980s, when he was the young and dashing skipper of the Oakland Athletics and he was in the World Series almost every year. Maybe the novelty of a manager with a law degree has worn off. Maybe his ideas about computers and bullpen roles no longer seem so revolutionary now that everyone is doing it.
Or maybe, one suspects, people have started to look at La Russa's hands and have noticed he still possesses only one World Series ring — or as many as, say, Bob Brenly — after all these years, that one coming in 1989. One ring to show for 24 seasons on the bench and nine trips to the postseason.
This is season number 25 and postseason trip number 10 for La Russa, and it may be his last, best chance. His Cardinals won 105 games this season, the best record in baseball, winning their division by 13 games. They open the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night against the Houston Astros as runaway favorites to reach the World Series for the first time since La Russa joined the franchise in 1996.
Asked on the eve of Game 1 to compare this team to his past Cardinals teams — including three (1996, 2000 and 2002) that reached the NLCS only to be beaten — La Russa said much by saying little.
"Well, I know what I think," he said. "I'm just wondering how much I should say, because I don't like to be too negative about anything in the past or too positive about anything now, because you still have to play the game . . . The other chances we had here in St. Louis, we had more issues and more problems that we had to overcome. I think we have more going for us [this time]."
What do the Cardinals have going for them? Only everything.
They have a decided home-field advantage, with about 52,000 red-clad fanatics creating one of the more intimidating spectacles in the sport.
They have the luxury of an extra few days off, having dispatched the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the Division Series, while the Astros were pushed to the edge by the Atlanta Braves. This gave La Russa an opportunity to set up his rotation as he saw fit — he will go with Woody Williams in Game 1, followed by Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis — while the weary Astros are forced to counter with Brandon Backe and Pete Munro in Games 1 and 2, before bringing back aces Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt in Games 3 and 4.
Above all, La Russa's Cardinals have one of baseball's deepest, most explosive lineups in recent memory, one that led the league in batting average, runs scored and slugging percentage, and one that is likely to have three of the top five finishers in voting for the league's most valuable player award — first baseman Albert Pujols, third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds.
"For pitchers on the other team," said Cardinals second baseman Tony Womack, "you don't get any kind of relief going down that lineup."
But if La Russa and the Cardinals have the most going for them, they must also deal for the first time with the weight of expectation, which wasn't around — or at least not to this extent — in their other postseason appearances.
La Russa, who turned 60 this month, said the only postseason failure that left him "broken-hearted" came in 2002. That year, the Cardinals were jolted by the death of pitcher Darryl Kile in June. But they rebounded, made the playoffs, swept the defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series, only to be ousted in five games by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, losing Games 4 and 5 by one run.
"I thought, 'Here's a group of men that deserve to get to the World Series,'" La Russa said Tuesday. "Just shows you, there's no justice in baseball. It's whoever plays best. You take your best shot, you got no regrets."
It is a testament to something — the Cardinals' astounding lineup, the organizational depth constructed by General Manager Walt Jocketty, La Russa's managing job, or some combination thereof — that the Cardinals have gone this far without a truly dominating starting pitcher, something that is thought to be absolutely necessary in October.
They did not have a starter finish among the top 10 in the league in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched or opponents' batting average. If they had a so-called ace, it was Chris Carpenter, who went 15-5 before being lost for the season — on the eve of the playoffs — because of a strained biceps muscle.
In the Astros, the Cardinals have an opponent they know well. The teams played 18 games this season, with the Astros winning 10. In late September, the Astros swept a three-game series in Houston by a combined score of 18-8 — at the time the Astros were locked in a desperate fight for the wild card, while the Cardinals were setting themselves up for the postseason.
"If you look at our season series," La Russa said, "they were a bunch of really good, close games that could go either way. A lot of hard competition, minimal [nonsense]. There's a lot of respect between the two clubs."
What La Russa does not say is the obvious: The Cardinals should win. They finished 13 games ahead of the Astros in the regular season. They have everything going for them, including La Russa. He may have been a genius once, but now he's just another guy who badly needs another ring.