After rallying twice from within one pitch of elimination on Thursday, La Russa's Cardinals finished off the manager's third World Series crown and second with the Cardinals via a 6-2 victory. That championship topped what might have been La Russa's best managerial effort in simply getting the Cardinals to the postseason, let alone winning it all, and allowed La Russa to leave at the pinnacle of his game.
It still was a surprising decision for those former players not in the know.
"As many of us were, I was very shocked this morning that he did retire," said White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing, who played for La Russa during the 1998 and '99 seasons. "He's a great baseball person and a great baseball mind. He's going to go down as one of the best managers of all time."
"He taught me about the game, how to play the game and how to respect the game," said White Sox first-base coach Harold Baines, who played for La Russa in Chicago and in Oakland. "He was always prepared. That doesn't necessarily mean you are going to win. But he was always one inning ahead in his thinking. He had us very prepared to win as a unit."
Baines actually began with La Russa in his first Minor League managerial job as part of the White Sox system at Double-A Knoxville in 1978. La Russa replaced White Sox manager Don Kessinger on Aug. 2, 1979, with the relatively inexperienced 34-year-old looking like a dugout natural from the start. He ran the White Sox for parts of nine seasons, leading the '83 squad to 99 wins and the American League West title.
That bond of friendship between Reinsdorf and La Russa was not weakened in 1985 when Ken Harrelson, currently a fixture in the White Sox television broadcast booth, took over as general manager and had a strained working relationship with LaRussa. Believing that someone running a department should have his own people in place, Reinsdorf allowed Harrelson to dismiss La Russa after 64 games in 1986 and eventually replace him with Jim Fregosi.
During a talk with MLB.com in 2006 about their friendship, prior to Interleague Play with the Cardinals, Reinsdorf listed the La Russa dismissal as the second worst decision made during his three-decade ownership tenure. But before letting go of La Russa, Reinsdorf called Roy Eisenhardt, the A's president, and received a strong indication Oakland would bring him in as manager. La Russa took over in Oakland approximately one month later.
"His brilliance is his legacy," said Reinsdorf of La Russa. "One of two managers to win a World Series in each league, six pennants. It says a lot about the man that he wasn't just going to stick around to break records.
"Some managers are great at running a game. Some are great from the ninth inning until the first inning. Tony was rare. He truly was great at both. I don't think anyone has won more often with teams expected to do far less."
In that 2006 interview, Reinsdorf said that if La Russa is your friend, you don't need another friend because he's that good of a person.
"I'm not half the person he is," said Reinsdorf of La Russa five years ago. He echoed a similar high level of respect Monday.
"Tony is one of the few people I know who would do something for a friend even if it was bad for him personally," Reinsdorf said. "It's a measure of the man that we fired him and remained friends."
"Overall, you can't make everybody happy," said Baines when asked about the notion of La Russa as a players' manager. "I have the utmost respect for him. He helped me as a person and as a player."
McEwing still has La Russa's lineup card from the game involving his first big league hit with the Cardinals on Sept. 12, 1998. Before McEwing was traded from the Cardinals to the Mets in March 2000, La Russa asked for a pair of "Super Joe's" cleats and had McEwing sign them.
Could McEwing, Baines and La Russa work together in Chicago, with La Russa taking on some sort of upper management role? The possibility exists when factoring in La Russa's baseball accomplishments and his closeness with Reinsdorf. Monday simply was about remembering La Russa's legacy.
"A lot of teams would like to have Tony involved with their organization," Baines said. "Everywhere he has gone, he has made that organization better. I would be crazy not to say yes."
"It's going to be weird not seeing him in the dugout, with what he brought to the game and as many individuals as he has touched," McEwing said. "I learned so much from him, and I'm very thankful."