Redbird's Burden

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

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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."

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.

"Being a player rep, it's not like I defused a bomb or something," Kline says. "I was just hearing from a higher power what was going on. My say doesn't mean crap to anybody. I'm just the messenger boy. Everyone wants to shoot the messenger. All the letters I got, and the ones to the other player reps, what can I do?"

Kline was on the mound for the Redbirds' final game last year, which Arizona won. Kline, like the rest of the Cardinal players, is relieved that this season of distress is over and the playoffs have begun.

"I enjoy playing in it. That's the pressure time," Kline says. "That's when people want to pitch. Last year, I gave up the game-winning hit to [Tony] Womack. It's been haunting me. This is the team I want to face. I want to get out there and get them out. He beat me last year, straight-out beat me. I want to try to get them back. That's how simple it is."

Playing the Diamondbacks is the simple part.

Getting there was the hard part.

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