Friday, September 29, 2006

Expiration Date: Ten Years

The Cardinals' end-of-the-year collapse is, in the long run, irrelevant. This is a team that has only one legitimate major-league caliber starter (Chris Carpenter) and only one hitting threat (Albert Pujols). Other than Scott Rolen, who looks exhausted both offensively and defensively, the team is staffed by bench players and third-tier free agents for position players and a bullpen better suited for Memphis or Springfield.

The reason the Cardinals have stayed in first place for so long has more to do with the mediocrity of the other teams in the division than with anything the Cardinals have accomplished. They are a .500 team, and they are lucky to have won as many as they have. Even if they hold off the Astros and squeak into the playoffs, there should be no reasonable expectation of their escaping the first round of play.

What this season really indicates is the end of Tony LaRussa’s term as Cardinals manager, and there’s no reason to blame him, or the players, or the management, or even the owners. It’s simply part of the natural cycle of managers in Major League Baseball.

Most Cardinals fans think of the Whitey Herzog era as the golden age of modern Cardinals baseball, and in a way, it certainly was. Herzog was the last manager to win the World Series (1982), and he won two other NL Pennants (’85 and ’87).

But Herzog also underachieved in the two World Series he lost, mismanaging his pitching staff (a common LaRussa criticism) and allowing his offense to crumble under pressure. At the end of Whitey’s term, his team simply quit playing for him. Whitey managed the Cardinals for 10 years.

The legendary Red Schoendienst, who managed during Bob Gibson’s best years and won the WS in ’67 and the NL in ’68 also managed for 10 years before stepping down. Joe Torre only lasted five years, but he was dealing with the end of the brewery ownership and the inept GM skills of Dal Maxvill.

LaRussa is finishing up his tenth year, and it’s clear that the best thing for everyone concerned—fans, players, coaches, management and ownership—is an amicable, “it was wonderful while it lasted” divorce. There’s no need to feel traumatized; it’s simply part of the natural order of things. It’s time for all of us to move on. This epic collapse is simply bringing that fact to an undeniable recognition.

LaRussa, should he choose to continue his career, will certainly have another successful run. And if history is any indication, the Cardinals should be rejuvenated under a new skipper. There will be many names brought to bear, but let me mention Jose Oquendo and submit that he may again be the Cardinals’ “secret weapon” to bring glory back to Cardinal Nation.

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