Could there have been a better managing job than the one he performed with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals? A club 10 1/2 games out of the postseason picture in late August overtook Atlanta to win the National League Wild Card berth.
That would have been enough for one epic story, but this club also won three straight postseason series as an underdog, eventually capturing the World Series against the Rangers in seven games, but only after a series of last-ditch, final-strike, gallant, dramatic comebacks in Game 6. There could be no more fitting circumstance for La Russa's retirement, which he announced on Monday, than the triumph of this team.
This St. Louis club exemplified the best of La Russa's teams -- the indomitable will, the flat refusal, individually and collectively, to give in to long odds and improbable circumstances. As much as the focus at the end would be on postseason heroics, the thing that often set La Russa's clubs apart was their ability to "grind," to be relentless over the long haul, to give their best effort, night after night, game after game, until the days grew into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into another season of success.
As a result, La Russa's place among the greatest managers of all time should not be a matter of dispute. He is third on the all-time victories list, and he could have been second, beyond even the great John McGraw, had he come back to manage for one more season. But that wasn't part of La Russa's landscape.
"I'm aware of the history of the game," La Russa said. "But I would not be happy with myself if the reason I came back was to move up one spot. That's not why you manage."
La Russa was one of only nine skippers to manage three World Series champions. He was one of only two managers to win World Series championships in both leagues, Sparky Anderson being the other.
Beyond this, La Russa changed the way baseball is played by the way he managed. His use of situational relievers refined and defined the way bullpens are used in contemporary baseball. As a manager, he often seemed to be a pitching change waiting to happen, but he used his relievers in the vast majority of cases with unerring acumen.
La Russa's managerial ranks
La Russa never had a shortage of critics, which in itself could be one measure of greatness. Maybe he should have won more than one World Series with the Oakland teams of the late 1980s and early '90s, but it was hard to blame him for Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988.
Maybe he was the last person in America who believed that Mark McGwire was innocent of steroid use. But that was also a measure of La Russa's loyalty, which was always more than skin deep. You could not fail to notice that when these latest Cardinals won the championship, McGwire was the hitting coach.
Maybe La Russa should have won a World Series with the 2004 Cardinals. That was the best National League regular-season team in this century, winning 105 games. It played some of the best baseball you would want to see, and it sustained that level. Again, it probably wasn't La Russa's fault that the Boston Red Sox, after an 86-year championship drought, turned into a force of nature after overcoming a 3-0 series deficit in the American League Championship Series.
Did opponents sometimes detect more than a hint of arrogance in the way La Russa and his players carried themselves? Did the Cardinals appear to be the one and only team that understood how the game was to be played? Were they in possession of baseball's Holy Grail, while everybody else was just in the neighborhood looking for a place to rent?
Yes, yes, yes. The Cardinals under La Russa were often not particularly liked by the opposition. But they earned admiration and respect through their unceasing efforts and, over time, their success.
And La Russa was not above making himself the center of controversy if that controversy could distract the other club from its primary purpose, that purpose being hanging a loss on the Redbirds. La Russa got inside the heads of some opposing managers over the years, and that always worked out to the benefit of his club.
When asked about his success as he moved up and through the ranks on the list of managerial victories, La Russa would typically answer with "great organizations," or "great situations." And he was not wrong. These were very positive situations with the White Sox, the Athletics and, for the last 16 seasons, with the Cardinals.
But here's the flip side of that analysis. These situations and organizations were even better because their manager was Tony La Russa. He leaves the game at the pinnacle of his career. And he leaves, like him or not, as a winner, an innovator and a man who fully understood the essential role played in baseball by human, intangible qualities; by effort and resolve. Tony La Russa, a lock for the Hall of Fame, was the ultimate grinder.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.