So much of baseball, or at least the way baseball is covered, is driven by perception. Some players are seen in a certain light, and they will be cast in that light forever. And such as life, some players are more than deserving of the monikers and titles that they collect, while others have perceptions thrust upon them.
Milton Bradley was perceived as a cancer, an instigator, a troublemaker. A similar line of behavior, particularly from a more productive player, could be seen as passionate and aggressive.
Jeff Francoeur is a leader. No, no. Not just a leader. A Leader. It is almost impossible for someone to shake this title, and is also one of the best titles for a player to attain. If you have leadership, you have a fallback. Production doesn't count as much. Performance matters a little bit less, because of that intangible quality of leadership, so vastly desired and yet so ill-defined, in the world of sport as in the game of life.
Titles are not always stationary; there is room for change, particularly when the expectations placed on a player are no longer being met. Ken Griffey Jr. was seen as "The Kid", the son of a well-respected and talented major leaguer, who with sheer athleticism and talent performed at an ultra-high level for nearly a decade. After being traded to Cincinnati, however, the spotlight moved away, as injuries and age began the Great Decline of his production. He isn't The Kid anymore; he's the guy who retired after being caught taking a nap during a game.
But there is one title that will never change: Genius. Genius is a title most commonly reserved for coaches, general managers, owners; essentially every position involved in sport that doesn't actually suit up and play the game. And once you are a Genius, you are a genius for life. Bill Belichick was 41-55 in his first six seasons of coaching. Three Super Bowls later, he's a Genius. It is not to say that he doesn't deserve a portion of the acclaim, or perhaps even a great deal of it; he has, in fact, won three Super Bowls (and gone to another).
But what gets lost in the mire under the coordination of the Genius is the player production on the field. Joe Torre was approaching the level of being called a Genius, until he left New York. Terry Francona won two World Series titles in Boston; and then they collapsed this past season, and Francona absorbs the blame, and it tarnishes his reputation. Geniuses stand above the fray; their opinion is undaunted by the performance of the men underneath them. Their Ways are the best Ways. They're intricate. Delicate. Involved. Methodical.
Tony LaRussa is a Genius. There is no amount of player shortcomings that could hinder the perception that he is, in all things baseball, a master at his craft. He sees all of the angles, knows all of the nuance and minutiae. He is the Grandmaster of the Double Switch, the Knight Templar of the 0.1+ IP relief outing, and the Sage of the Defensive Replacement. Which is what has made his last move his Master Stroke: Retiring.
After capturing his third Series title, and second with the Pujols Cardinals, LaRussa has announced he is retiring. After 33 years, a 2728-2365 lifetime record, Tony is moving on from managing. He will probably end up with a job, if he so desires, on ESPN, the MLB Network, or working within the MLB offices, much the way that Torre is doing. He will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And he deserves almost all of the accolades that will rain down upon him with much hyperbole. But his greatest managing decision is the situation he will be avoiding by leaving the Cardinals this off-season.
After a remarkable run this last season, the Cardinals are set to get old. Well, older. The average position player's age this last season was 30. Jaime Garcia is the only piece of their rotation who is under 30 and is not a free agent. Carpenter may return, at age 37 for $15m. If he does, the Cardinals will have just over $56m wrapped up in Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and Kyle Lohse. With the prospect of re-signing Albert Pujols going for no less than $20m per year and upwards of $30m, they could have anywhere from $76-$86m invested in five players, all on the wrong side of 30. With seven other players due for a raise in arbitration, the need to field a 25-man roster, and a dearth of talent, particularly in the position player side of things, in the minor leagues, the Cardinals are headed for a speculative period of poor performance. And really, whether they sign Pujols or not just determines when the decline will begin, how drastic it will be, and whether or not they will have financial flexibility to work out of it.
And this is what makes LaRussa's decision to leave so brilliant. It gives Albert the right to shop free agency competitively and without forethought of what he might be leaving behind. His manager is gone, and from a populist angle, his ties to the organization have been greatly diminished.
Tony doesn't have to worry about the decisions to bring back Carpenter or not or to re-sign Pujols. And more importantly, he won't be residing over a period of unsuccessful baseball in St. Louis, which may have tarnished his sparkling, Genius reputation. There will be no decline for LaRussa. No gentle fade into Oblivion like you saw with Bobby Cox that had some questioning his competency toward the end. LaRussa leaves on a high note. No, the highest note.
And what he leaves behind in St. Louis is soon to become a Ghost Orchestra, where the echoes of former glory ring around the hollow supports of Busch Stadium for the foreseeable future as the quality of play deteriorates, the players become maligned, and the fan base becomes disenfranchised with the direction of the organization. You only have to look to the Denver Broncos in the wake of the Elway era to catch a glimpse of what St. Louis may have to look forward to in the foreseeable future. With LaRussa gone, and with all of the decisions left to be made regarding the major league club, the future in St. Louis looks bleak.
And LaRussa the Genius will, once again, be above it all.