In 1981 the team notched the best overall record in its division but was aced out by virtue of a players' strike that wound up splitting the season into halves, neither of which ended with the Birds on top. There was no denying the Cardinals in 1982, however, as the club went 92-70 and notched its first World Series triumph since 1967. Two subsequent Herzog-led Cards squads reached the World Series, in 1985 and in '87. (The star-crossed '85 season saw the Cardinals win 101 games and march into the so-called I-70 Series, only to fall victim to an ill-timed umpiring brain fart that likely cost them the title.)

Tony La Russa: 1996-2011 Tony La Russa, the man Matheny replaces, is by far the winningest manager ever to don the Birds on the Bat. He passed Red Schoendienst to take over the top spot back in 2007 and proceeded to pile on victories for four more years. A likely Hall of Famer even before he arrived on the banks of the Mississippi, La Russa has all but ensured that when he enters Cooperstown, he'll do so with a Cardinals cap atop his improbably coiffed dome.

La Russa joined the organization in 1996 and immediately turned around a moribund franchise. It had been ten years since the Cardinals had last made the playoffs, and during much of that time the brewery had been far more interested in unloading the team than in restoring it to respectability. But now there ensued a new era, with William DeWitt Jr. heading the incoming ownership group, Walt Jocketty tinkering with personnel issues and Tony La Russa maneuvering his roster like Napoleon in sweatpants.

In his first year on the job, the Cardinals reached the postseason with an 88-74 mark, only to cede the NL pennant to the Atlanta Braves after having taken a commanding three-games-to-one advantage in the best-of-seven league championship series.

It was an older team Jocketty and La Russa assembled, featuring a veteran core that included Ron Gant, Gary Gaetti and Oakland import Dennis Eckersley. Unfortunately, it proved a formula impossible to sustain, and while Mark McGwire (another Oakland transplant) stoked the fan base with long-ball pyrotechnics, the Cards wouldn't return to contention until 2000, by which time a new nucleus was forming — one that, led by a thirteenth-round draft pick named Albert Pujols, would see La Russa through a glorious (if often aggravating) decade-plus.

Joe Torre: 1990-1995 (Honorable Mention) Joe Torre's stint as St. Louis skipper was not the stuff of legend by any measure. But his tenure here was significant, especially in hindsight, a vantage point from which it's plain to see his craggy visage was destined to adorn another franchise's managerial monument.

Torre took over the Redbirds during 1990, after Whitey Herzog stepped down and Red Schoendienst briefly came out of semi-retirement (again). It was a miserable year, mostly. Willie McGee was kicking all kinds of ass offensively (he'd be packed off to the La Russa-led and World Series-bound Oakland A's before season's end), and John Tudor capped off his career with a brilliant swan song, but the Cards limped home at 70-92. The next season, Torre's first full year at the helm, was much better, as the team finished second in the NL East with an 84-78 record; the Cardinals won 83 and 87 games in '92 and '93, respectively, before the bottom fell out in the strike year of 1994. After the Cardinals commenced 1995 in lackluster fashion, Torre was shown the door.

The following season, the man who was greeted in a New York Daily News headline as "Clueless Joe" would be named AL Manager of the Year, leading the Yankees to a World Championship that began a glorious streak of success.

The Redbirds' managerial Rushmore is cut from the same granite in one aspect and one aspect only. All four great managers led great teams. And what single characteristic is shared by all great teams? Great players. (C'mon! Why do you think they're called truisms?)

Whatever kind of manager Matheny will ultimately be, he'll rise or fall based on the strength of his players. Billy Southworth inherited Stan Musial. Whitey Herzog brought in Ozzie Smith. Tony La Russa captured lightning in a bottle with his veterans of '96, but he built his legacy with players whose backs bore the names Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, Carpenter, Molina and Wainwright. And, yes, one Michael Scott Matheny.

Mike Matheny is poised to be as successful as any of these men, right out of the gate. He has a squad stocked with young talent looking to him for leadership and a battle-tested front office poised to provide support. How will Matheny perform? If he has great Cardinals players, he'll be a great Cardinals manager.

« Previous Page