Gnash your teeth as he persists in batting his pitcher eighth. Scratch your head when he sits a red-hot Ludwick for a struggling Duncan. Roll your eyes when the box score shows two or three relievers, each with only one batter faced. And snicker (still) when you see the mug shot from his 2007 DUI arrest. But ask yourself: Where would the St. Louis Cardinals be without Tony La Russa as manager? Since joining the club in 1996, La Russa has led the team to seven division titles, six National League Championship Series and two World Series appearances. Most remarkable, his best campaigns have been his most recent. In 2006 his masterful postseason bullpen juggling — along with a little luck and some timely hitting — led a subpar Cards squad to the ball club's first title in 24 years. This year he took a retooled team expected to scuffle among the league's bottom feeders into the thick of the pennant chase. And he's done all this while facing the public scrutiny that has followed Mark McGwire's fall from grace and Josh Hancock's untimely death. No doubt more than a few talk-radio blowhards and message-board GMs will celebrate when La Russa finally hangs up his spikes. The rest of us will remember the years when first place was just the beginning.
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