La Russa agrees to two-year contract

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

cardinals manager makes decision to stay despite team's ongoing search for a new GM.

ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa agreed to a two-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, satisfied with the progress and direction of the team's general manager search.

"I'm real pleased it worked out," La Russa said at a news conference Monday. "I'm thrilled to be back."

La Russa, 63, confirmed he'd be back more than three weeks after the Cardinals ended a disappointing 78-win season. The firing earlier this month of general manager Walt Jocketty, who hired La Russa in 1995, complicated the process.

Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. expects to hire a new general manager by the end of the World Series. The candidates are all currently assistant GMs, including former Jocketty top aide John Mozeliak.

"The sooner the better, ideally," DeWitt said.

La Russa called the GM vacancy "uncomfortable" but said feedback from management and players encouraged him to return. La Russa would have preferred the new GM give the go-ahead for his return, but felt it important to finalize his status heading into free agency.

DeWitt said all the GM candidates he's talked to have said they'd have no problem working with La Russa. La Russa also said he'd gotten positive feedback from players with the notable exception of third baseman Scott Rolen, with whom he's clashed repeatedly the past few seasons.

La Russa twice benched Rolen in the 2006 playoffs, displeased with Rolen's failure to disclose the extent of a shoulder injury, while Rolen disagreed with the manager's handling.

"You've got to be honest, he's probably the one guy who has issues with me," La Russa said. "You hope he's healthy, understand we have issues, and don't let it get in the way."

La Russa said the firing of Jocketty was not a huge surprise, given the front-office rift that developed with Jeff Luhnow, vice president in charge of amateur scouting and player development. The two clashed in philosophy, Jocketty's old-school approach vs. Luhnow's new-school numbers crunching.

"I was surprised that it happened like it happened," La Russa said. "But I was not surprised, there were issues."

La Russa finished a three-year deal at the end of the season. He said two years was the right length because a one-year contract would prompt questions from the start.

"One is the wrong message because from spring training on it's the same deal," La Russa said. "Two lets the players know I'm back for more than one."

La Russa said he never talked to any teams during his short time as a free agent. His name had surfaced as a possible replacement for Joe Torre, who left the Yankees after 12 seasons, though La Russa denied interest in the Yankees job. La Russa took over the Cardinals after Torre was fired midway through the 1995 season.

The often prickly La Russa, though, disagreed with speculation he'd have difficulty operating in New York.

"It's surprising that there are opinions about the job of managing or about me personally who don't really know me," La Russa said. "I think managing is a very challenging thing, no matter where you do it. Nobody gets a free pass."

La Russa has led St. Louis to seven playoff appearances, six NL Central championships, two pennants and the 2006 World Series win over Detroit. His A's team won the 1989 World Series.

He had weighed leaving after a trying season in which the defending World Series champions finished 78-84. The year got off to a rocky start before the season even began when La Russa was arrested on a drunken-driving charge in March near the team's spring training complex in Florida. Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock died in May after a drunken-driving accident, and several players were lost for long stretches because of injuries. Staff ace Chris Carpenter pitched only in the season opener.

La Russa is 1,055-887 (.543) with the Cardinals. He is third on the career wins list with a lifetime record of 2,375-2,070 (.534) with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A's and the Cardinals. He was AL manger of the year in 1983, 1988 and 1992, and NL manager of the year in 2002.

Mozeliak has been productive as the interim GM, picking up the option on closer Jason Isringhausen and re-signing starter Joel Pineiro and reliever Russ Springer.

"I really don't feel like I'm being interviewed over three weeks or something like that," Mozeliak said. "I think they know what I'm capable of doing, and Bill just wants to make sure whoever he puts in place he's comfortable with."

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