One of the mysteries of the last quarter century in baseball is how Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' smart manager, can have 2,114 regular season wins, but only one World Series victory. And that championship was 15 seasons ago.
After Sunday night's 6-2 Red Sox victory in Game 2 of the World Series, the Cards are halfway to extending La Russa's streak of futility to 16 seasons. And the pattern and tone of this Series are already ominously similar to several previous La Russa postseason disappointments when his players sensed his worry and tension, then tightened up themselves.
La Russa can see baseball karma in the fall of a sparrow. And, in October, what he usually intuits, whether it exists, is bad. This odd, almost perverse tendency to intuit doom on the verge of victory transmits quickly to his teams. And, if something doesn't change fast, we may be watching another remarkably talented La Russa team make a quick and ugly October exit.
This year, as his Cardinals won 105 games, the highest total of his career, La Russa passed Dodgers legend Walter Alston in career wins. Next year, he'll presumably pass Joe McCarthy and Bucky Harris before the all-star break. With just a .500 season in '05, LaRussa would also pass Sparky Anderson to move into third place on the all-time list for managerial wins. That's third place, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw. And La Russa is only 60 years old. This is one of the best managers who ever lived.
Yet in 10 trips to the postseason, his record is 4-5 in league championship series and a poor 1-2 mark in the World Series with the Oakland teams of 1988, '89 and '90, which were all heavy favorites.
Now, it's happening again. A brilliant Cardinals team has looked horrid and tense in losing the first two games of this 100th World Series. In a luck and fluke saturated Game 1, the Cards lost the slapstick affair, 11-9. On Sunday night, the Cards' starting pitcher was knocked out early for the second straight night, allowing a less-than-full-strength Curt Schilling enough cushion to last six victorious innings. Worst of all, the heart of the Cardinals' vaunted batting order hasn't hit a lick in the clutch.
La Russa is such a dominant personality and team molder that his clubs not only mirror his personality but, like a family with a strong parent, instantly sense his moods, opinions and -- especially -- his worries, tensions and premonitions.
And, in a short, tension-packed series, La Russa is often choked full of worries, tensions and forebodings. He can't help it. It's his nature. He senses turning points, key plays, crucial bad breaks or rotten luck and has a precise sense of how those events change the probabilities of victory. Many nuances -- especially negative ones that few players would notice -- are instantly obvious to La Russa. Since he can't help using these postseason stages as an audience for his theories and views, La Russa's words, and the tone underneath them, filters throughout the Series. Anybody who's been around him much can read him easily. And that certainly includes his players.
In this regard, La Russa resembles Earl Weaver, another high-strung, intelligent manager who was better suited to strategies that worked over a 162-game season, but tended to tense-up his own teams with his superstitions, worries and dugout grumblings.
In this World Series, it only took one game for La Russa to start talking like the same fellow who may have rattled his over-dog A's when they were upset in five games by the badly injured Dodgers in '88 and swept by the hugely overmatched Reds in '90.
In the first answer to the first question of his first mass interview, La Russa went out of his way to mention how much the Cards would miss valuable fifth starter Chris Carpenter as well as left-handed reliever Steve Kline. "These two guys have been so important to us," he said. "It's really a tough break, but, you know, we'll do without."
As soon as Woody Williams was atrocious in Game 1, lasting 2 1/3 innings, La Russa not only placed blame, but generalized it to his entire starting rotation. "Our big regular season was built as much on quality starts as anything. Here in the postseason, we have not had the six or seven innings where we could use two or three relievers like it's the best way to go. So we feel like we need to challenge our starters to get deeper in the game and they will respond."
That simply increases pressure, rather than decreasing it, on the next day's pitcher -- in this case Matt Morris, a warhorse veteran who has had a bad season and was pitching on only three days' rest.
Morris was knocked out in Game 2 after just 4 1/3 innings, allowing a two-run 400-foot triple to dead center in the first inning by Jason Varitek and a 400-foot two-run double to roughly the same triangle by red-hot No. 9 hitter Mark Bellhorn in the fourth inning.
In contrast, Red Sox Manager Terry Francona has been relaxed, forgiving, vague or even playful about the mistakes made by his self-proclaimed idiots. "That was not an instructional video . . . I don't think the players were nervous. [But] they were making me nervous," Francona said, jokingly after a four-error Red Sox performance in Game 1. "I walked out through the outfield and about twisted an ankle where Manny had his divot" while grotesquely botching a fly ball.
Before Game 2, Francona emphasized that it was not his team's four errors that caught his attention but how admirably they had ignored their screwups, played on and won. What do you know, the Red Sox made four more errors in the first six innings of Game 2, an incredible amount. Yet they played on, seemed not to be embarrassed, just annoyed, and held a 4-1 lead.
Few things are more important in a World Series than for a manager to dissolve as much of the event's enormous pressure as possible. Last year, 73-year-old Jack McKeon set the example for his Marlins by dancing with his wife at parties, cigar in jaw, until 3 a.m. after games. His message? Just having a ball beating these cocky Yankees. Anybody got a beer?
You would think that, after 86 years without a world title, Francona might be mentioning the importance to the Red Sox of winning this affair. He's never mentioned it. However, before Game 1, La Russa said, "It's our fourth chance [for these Cardinals] that we finally have a chance to play for the ring . . . and only three guys [on the Cardinals] have a ring . . . Man, [this] ain't another baseball game. We're playing for the big ring."
Perhaps the quintessential example of La Russa's tone-deafness to the proper choice of words and subjects on these stages came before Game 2 when he described "the toughest thing to swallow" from the bizarre 11-9 Game 1 loss. He could have mentioned the Cards' wild pitching or bad clutch hitting or even his own weird decision to pinch-run Game 4 starter Jason Marquis who almost disabled himself twice in one trip around the bases, stumbling several times just running 90 feet to second base then having a home plate collision with Boston's massive catcher Varitek. La Russa's lucky his bright idea didn't put Marquis in the hospital.
Instead, LaRussa said, "The groundskeeper came up and apologized for the bad hop on Womack [on a David Ortiz RBI infield single in the seventh inning]. I've never had that happen. We had a chance to get a double play or throw the guy out at the plate, but the ball was hit very hard. . . . A double play would have been a nice momentum thing for us."
The groundskeeper was classy enough to apologize. Instead of being gracious, LaRussa chose to blame the Boston infield for a bad hop on a ball that was hit about 500 mph. Only in October, and only when he seems to sense that subtle factors and forces are conspiring against his odds, does La Russa suddenly sound like a manager who wants his excuses and his scapegoats all lined up, just in case he doesn't win the World Series.
"Baseball is meant to be analyzed and discussed and second-guessed and first-guessed," said La Russa. "You have a whole year of statistics for these two teams, plus you have career [stats]. I'd analyze it almost to death [as a fan]. I think that's part of the enjoyment of this."
Dump the analysis, the strategy and the stats, Tony. Give somebody a hotfoot. Wear a fright wig on the team plane.
Oh, sorry, that's what the Red Sox do when they get behind. The Cardinals will probably just re-polish their shoes and shave twice. That may not be enough.