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Once La Russa saw that the team was locked in, he knew that winning would make the season easier to endure and losing would only make things worse.
"I'm not sure 'distraction' is a respectful term, but winning gave us something," La Russa says. "If you're grieving and you're losing, it's like you can't get away from feeling bad, the negatives. At least we had something professionally that we were proud of, but we were still sad. I've seen winning clubhouses. I really believe the first time, that Sunday game against the Cubs when we were losing by like six runs and Edgar [Renteria] hit that home run, that's the first game that I saw real happiness here -- and we had already won a bunch of games. It was the first time the guys went crazy, forgot everything."
Winning isn't the only thing, but it eases the pain. La Russa thinks losing would have given the team no place to hide.
"I think people would have cut us slack and all this kind of stuff, but you wouldn't have been able to get away from the suffering," he says. "You'd be suffering professionally, you'd be suffering personally. The professional success we had gave us a little break from the other stuff."
That this year's incarnation of the Cardinals is a team that has overcome death and injury befits a city that is oft described as dying, or at least struggling.
St. Louis is where, last year, ten-year-old Rodney McAllister was killed by a pack of wild dogs in a city park. It's where Rosalyn Bardwell was accused two weeks ago of throwing a bucket of gasoline on a man who owed her money and setting him on fire -- with the third match she tried to strike. It's a city where, last week, 36-year-old Sonny Thompson, a one-legged man who used a wheelchair, ended up in a Dumpster and died after a garbage truck hauled him to the city dump.
Against that backdrop, the news that the Cardinals are struggling through the adversity of the deaths of their elderly announcer and a young teammate makes baseball seem a little more like the real world that surrounds it.
In a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature, media-unfriendly Giants star Barry Bonds argues that baseball is merely entertainment and shouldn't be mined for metaphors about life outside the foul lines. La Russa says he didn't read the piece, but after this season, he says, he disagrees with Bonds.
"If you're a player who refuses to acknowledge that the game really is a metaphor for life, then you're really ignoring one of the great charms of the game," La Russa says. "The fact is, there is a host of metaphors from the first day of spring training to this point and beyond that directly relate to what people go through in their life. Baseball is the best for that.
"This has been real dramatic because everybody can understand a death in the family -- grieving, you don't enjoy life for a while, it's real dramatic. But there's stuff that happens here on a daily basis, the way these guys are tested. Baseball is the best example because we do this every day of the week. Six months seems like it's all year. It's not once a week like football or a couple times a week like basketball."
As for the job La Russa has done, and how he's accepted by the locals, an authority no less than Bing Devine thinks he's done just fine. Devine, a former general manager for the Cardinals, knows a thing or two about rejection. Devine made the legendary Ernie Broglio-Lou Brock trade during the 1964 season. The trade was fundamental to the Redbirds' winning the World Series that year, but Devine was fired that August. Devine is now a "special assignment" scout for the Cardinals.
"La Russa's a good manager," says Devine. "He's not the greatest personality in the world. He's not huge news by what he says and how he says it -- and he doesn't really care about that.
"La Russa's La Russa, and he's a manager, and that's what he wants to be, and he knows what a manager is supposed to do: win."
That La Russa has managed a team to 97 victories in a season in which he has had to use 26 pitchers, endure the emotional loss caused by the deaths of Kile and Buck and rise above other distractions is a testament to his powers of concentration and his ability to motivate.
The distraction of the stadium controversy that flared up in May appears to have had little effect on attendance, which again exceeded three million. The current proposal for a new stadium relies more heavily on private financing and probably will run into less resistance.
A more serious hurdle was the threatened work stoppage, avoided at the eleventh hour. Steve Kline was the player representative for the Cardinals during labor negotiations. Kline, a relief pitcher, has had a rough year with injuries, inconsistent performance and grief from fans about a work stoppage.