Redbird's Burden

La Russa endures a hell of a season, escaping the purgatory of tradition

As he walked across a parking lot on his way to a recent game, an archetypal Cardinals fan gave a hint of the burden Tony La Russa must bear.

Under his beige suspenders, Gene Czarnecki wore a long-sleeved white jersey with a Cardinals logo on the front and the name Buck on the back. Below the name of late broadcaster Jack Buck was "1120," the frequency of KMOX-AM, the team's flagship station.

As a kid, Czarnecki was a member of the Knothole Gang at the old Sportsman's Park on Grand Boulevard, getting in free to see the Browns and Cardinals. He paid to see the seventh game of the 1946 series against the Boston Red Sox, during which Enos Slaughter made his famous "mad dash" from first to home to score the deciding run.

Czarnecki is a big fan, a longtime fan.

"What do I think of La Russa? He's the best manager in baseball," the 72-year-old Mehlville resident says.

But then, pausing for effect, Czarnecki adds:

"Next to Whitey Herzog. I like Whitey Herzog."

Nobody has to remind anybody in St. Louis about Whitey. The flat-topped, beer-bellied native of New Athens, Illinois, was at the wheel when three World Series came to town, in 1982, '85 and '87. From only one of those did the Cards emerge as winners, but Herzog revived a baseball buzz that had been in remission.

After some horse-latitude years in the early 1990s, the buzz is back.

And whether fans like it or not, Bay Area-living vegetarian lawyer Tony La Russa is driving this time.

By most superficial standards, baseball is dull. There is a lot of standing around, a lot of waiting for something to happen.

The only speed involved is how fast a man runs 90 feet to a base, the only violence the infrequent collision at home plate. To experience suspense, a spectator needs to know the game, notice its subtleties, pay attention and be willing to wait. Football, basketball and hockey have little in common with baseball.

Baseball does best in markets where parents introduce the game to children; it's an experience handed down from generation to generation. As a child grows, a linkage develops between baseball and the past. A tradition develops, and, as Woody Allen has said, tradition gives the illusion of permanence.

No team still playing this October -- except, of course, for the damn Yankees -- reeks of major-league baseball tradition like the Cardinals, who are in their 110th year in St. Louis.

Look at the other pretenders. The Arizona Diamondbacks are in their fifth year of existence. The itinerant Braves and A's each have called three cities home; the Giants moved to the City by the Bay a measly 44 years ago. Minnesota, a franchise almost "contracted" out of existence by the baseball establishment this year, has been in the Twin Cities for 42 years. And Anaheim? Sounds like a Disney theme park.

La Russa knows full well the upside and downside of the Cardinal culture. His four postseason appearances in the seven years he's managed the Cardinals would make him bulletproof in most major-league cities, but for Cardinal cultists he'll have a bull's-eye on his back until he brings home the Cardinals' tenth world championship. Only the Yankees have more.

On the upside, the tradition raises the level of expectation for his players' performance and their behavior.

"I think tradition's a big part of it. I think these guys understand it," La Russa says of his players. "There's a certain expectation -- I was always told you rise or fall to the expectations you think people have of you. If you think a guy is a piece of crap, it's 'You don't think I'm any good anyway, so I'm going to act like you think.' Our fans elevate our players."

This season's tragic events have elevated the players in different ways. Death came to legendary local icon Jack Buck and starting pitcher Darryl Kile. The 77-year-old announcer Buck spent 48 years broadcasting Cardinal games, and when he died, thousands filed past his flag-draped casket as it sat at home plate. A day after Buck's burial, 33-year-old Kile, the father of three young children, was found dead in his Chicago hotel room before a game with the Cubs.

La Russa says the team had two real problems. There was the personal loss of team leader Kile and the professional problems with the pitching staff, what with the loss of Kile and injuries to Matt Morris, Woody Williams and newly added closer Jason Isringhausen.

"When you have guys really just saddened and devastated by the losses and questioning whether they should be doing what they're doing, either one of those two things could have beat us," La Russa says.

"That's when I had my doubts, early on, whether we would handle the personal stuff. After a few games, I saw this club come together. They were bound and determined that professionally they would do what they had to do and personally they would grieve. Then I got to thinking, 'I think we're going to try,' so then it becomes 'Are we good enough professionally?' We had so many pitching issues, I was never really confident the wheels wouldn't come off at any one time."

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