October 31, 2011: Tony La Russa retires on a winning note

Months before his 2011 Cardinals surged into a National League wild-card berth and stunned all of baseball with the franchise’s 11th World Series championship, Tony La Russa knew it would be his last season wearing the birds on the bat.

As the Cardinals entered the dog days of August, La Russa realized that while he continued to love the competition, the game wasn’t quite as much fun as it had once been. His mind kept going back to a spring training game against the Nationals in which Chris Carpenter hit Washington’s Laynce Nix with a pitch.

Nix had played for the Reds the previous season when the Cardinals brawled with Cincinnati, and the Nationals believed the Cardinals had intentionally hit Nix. They responded by hitting Ryan Theriot with a pitch.

Now La Russa had a decision to make. He went to pitcher Miguel Batista and gave him his marching orders: “Go after Ian Desmond.”[1]

Batista did as instructed and was ejected. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, a friend of La Russa’s, was upset. So was Desmond.

“As I thought about whether or not this would be my last year, I kept going back to that incident,” La Russa wrote in his book One Last Strike. “In some ways, how I felt about it mirrored what I was thinking in terms of this 2011 club. I had everything I wanted in terms of great team chemistry. Still, it wasn’t as much fun as it had been. The duty I felt to protect my players had forced my hand, and I’d had to do something against a manager and a player I really liked. That wasn’t any fun. I distinctly remember thinking, I’ve had just about enough of this crap.[2]

In mid-August, La Russa told his wife Elaine of his decision: this would be his last season managing the Cardinals. She was surprised, and La Russa wrote “she would have been more disappointed and upset if she’d thought I was serious.”[3]

On August 19, La Russa met with general manager John Mozeliak to tell him of his decision.

“We talked, quite a bit, on sort of the relevance of what was happening,” Mozeliak said. “At the time our club was still directionally not sure where it would end up in terms of the success we ended up having. There was still some frustration, but I think for him, he just wanted me to know, and I appreciated that because it was allowing us to at least start planning. … My head was obviously spinning. I went back to the hotel. I had reached out to Bill (DeWitt Jr.) to let him know. I kind of took a deep breath and in earnest started making a list. It was probably 30 or 35 names of potential replacements.”

La Russa and Elaine discussed his retirement again in September, as the Cardinals were rallying to catch the Braves in the playoff race. Of everyone La Russa spoke to, Elaine came the closest to talking him out of his decision.

“One, she said it would mean a lot to her and the girls if I passed John McGraw for second on the list of most managerial wins in a career,” La Russa recalled. “I could understand their thinking, but I couldn’t give in to it, because that was something personal and not professional. Doing it for them, knowing that I shouldn’t be there, wasn’t something I could do. I hated to disappoint them.

“The second thing she said hit me the hardest. She told me that for the last 30 years, she and the girls, whether over the radio, TV, or internet, at game time would turn on the broadcast, and go about their day while keeping track of our progress. Every day for six months or more, they did that. Our games were so much a part of their lives and had been for so long, that they couldn’t imagine going on without them as the soundtrack for their lives. Hearing that was the only time I reconsidered my decision. Elaine really made me realize, good and bad, just how intertwined my two families were.”[4]

Nonetheless, La Russa could not be swayed. Even as the Cardinals rallied to reach the postseason for the ninth time in his 16 seasons and La Russa captured the third world championship of his career, his course was clear.

“I looked in the mirror and I know if I came back, I would come back for the wrong reasons and I wouldn’t do that,” La Russa said.[5]

Only a few people were clued in to La Russa’s decision. In addition to DeWitt and Mozeliak, La Russa told coaches Dave Duncan, Mark McGwire, and Dave McKay.[6]

Three days after the Cardinals won Game 7 of the World Series, La Russa and the Cardinals participated in a parade in their honor. After celebrating with more than 40,000 Cardinals fans, La Russa gathered his team for a brief meeting in the weight room and broke the news.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted one attendee who said that La Russa “had his game face on.”[7]

“I wasn’t expecting a retirement speech,” Skip Schumaker said, “but Tony, who knows how to speak, you could tell he was ready. He was done. His best chance to win was with us, and he did that. It didn’t feel like he was going to another organization. He’s spent, and he’s going to leave us with a championship. He got to walk away on his terms and he deserves it more than anybody else.”[8]

Afterward, La Russa shared hugs and well wishes.

“It’s fitting for Tony,” Holliday said. “For it to be this mad dash to the finish, and for us to be able to finish the job in such a crazy manner, it’s the end it should be. It’s a cool way to finish. Very Hollywood-esque. He’s a Hall of Fame manager and he gets to ride off into the sunset on possibly the highest note of them all – Game 7 of the World Series, at home, in a postseason that we were supposed to have no chance to get into. It’s cool for a guy like Tony, who has managed 33 years, to go out the way he did.”[9]

La Russa retired with a 1,408-1,182-1 record with the Cardinals for a .544 winning percentage. Along the way, the Cardinals won the National League pennant in 2004, 2006, and 2011, and won the World Series in 2006 and 2011.

At the time of his retirement, La Russa’s career win total of 2,728 was 35 shy of John McGraw’s mark for the second-most managerial wins in modern-day history.

“I think this just feels like time to end it,” La Russa said.[10]

“I talked to him plenty about it but I didn’t wear him out on the subject,” DeWitt said, “and once he made his mind up, his mind was made up. He’s a very decisive individual. It’s one of the things that makes him a great manager. He makes a decision and doesn’t look back.”[11]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, who called La Russa one of the most fascinating personalities he had covered in his 38-year career, said the clues of La Russa’s decision had been there in the month’s final weeks.[12]

During this incredible championship run for his 2011 St. Louis Cardinals over the last few weeks, the 67-year-old manager was subtly broadening his field of vision. Instead of locking in only on his dogged daily routine – trying to win a baseball game – La Russa surprised us. Uncharacteristically, he was pausing to savor the entire experience of this dash to the most improbable World Series pursuit in baseball history. He lingered around before and after games longer to tell wonderful old baseball stories. He seemed relaxed. There were nights before the games when you could actually catch him slowly panning around the ballpark to take in all its amazing sights and sounds.[13]

Though La Russa may have paused to savor the moments a bit more during his final weeks in St. Louis, he left behind a legacy of unyielding intensity.

“He’s tough to play for because he’s so demanding, and why shouldn’t he be?” said Mike Matheny, who played for La Russa from 2000 through 2004 and was named his successor as Cardinals manager in November. “You ended a season completely spent, physically and mentally spent. I know he’s gotten some knocks for that. That style of constantly grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding is difficult to do, but it’s what we learn is conducive to winning. It could turn into a country club if you get too comfortable. He doesn’t let it. He kept you on track. He kept you on edge for 162 games.”[14]

Holliday said that La Russa’s legacy of tenacity would carry forward no matter who was named the next Cardinals manager.

“I’m thankful for the two seasons that I did have with him,” Matt Holliday said. “I think a lot of us learned from him. A lot of Carp’s edge, a lot of Carp’s leadership, comes from Tony and how he goes about it. Tony talks a lot about how to be a leader of men. That combination of Tony leading and our veterans following suit will carry over. It’s important for us to play the right way and it won’t change.”[15]

Shortly after his retirement as a manager, La Russa took a position with Major League Baseball assisting another former Cardinals manager, Joe Torre, in on-field discipline. In 2014, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and also joined the Diamondbacks as Chief Baseball Officer. He later took front-office positions with the Red Sox and Angels.

In 2021, La Russa returned to the dugout as manager of the White Sox, where he passed John McGraw for second place in all-time managerial wins.


Enjoy this post? Follow STLRedbirds.com on Twitter or enter your email below to get new posts sent directly to your inbox!


[1] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 168.

[2] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 169.

[3] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 170.

[4] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android Version, retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 170.

[5] Joe Strauss, “‘I have no regrets,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[6] Joe Strauss, “‘I have no regrets,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[7] Joe Strauss, “‘I have no regrets,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[8] Derrick Goold, “‘Cool way to finish,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[9] Derrick Goold, “‘Cool way to finish,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[10] Joe Strauss, “‘I have no regrets,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[11] Joe Strauss, “‘I have no regrets,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[12] Bryan Burwell, “Leaving on his terms,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[13] Bryan Burwell, “Leaving on his terms,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[14] Derrick Goold, “‘Cool way to finish,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

[15] Derrick Goold, “‘Cool way to finish,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 1, 2011.

One thought on “October 31, 2011: Tony La Russa retires on a winning note

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: