The team he led to an unlikely World Series victory in seven games over the Rangers in 2011 is battling against the odds again this season. The Cards lead the National League Championship Series after a 6-4 victory over the Giants in Game 1 on Sunday.
"I heard or saw a stat that 18 of the 25 guys were back from last year," La Russa told MLB.com on Sunday as he watched the game perched in a box high above home plate at AT&T Park. "They've got a bunch of gamers who are going to compete for every pitch until the end of the ninth inning every game they play. They're very, very tough."
Last year, the Cardinals were 8 1/2 games behind NL Wild Card-leading Atlanta on Sept. 1, and they passed the Braves on the final day of the regular season. This year, St. Louis defeated Atlanta in the inaugural NL Wild Card game.
Last year, the Cards were down to the last strike twice in Game 6 of the World Series against the Rangers, but came back to win that game and the Fall Classic. Just this past Friday night, they trailed the Nationals by two runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 and scored four times to win their NL Division Series.
There seems to be no stopping them.
"The thing about Game 6 of the World Series, there were probably 10 times that September against the Phillies and the Brewers that they had that situation," La Russa said. "And they never ever gave in. They never ever gave up. If you never give in, you never give up, sometimes you pull it off. They have no fear."
"If you never give in, you never give up, sometimes you pull it off. They have no fear."
-- Tony La Russa
To be sure, the Cardinals are a different team this time around. La Russa, after 33 years managing, retired with his third World Series ring, and the Cards then hired Mike Matheny. Pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan took a leave of absence to tend to his wife this season and was replaced by Derek Lilliquist. Albert Pujols left for the Angels via free agency, and Carlos Beltran was signed to replace that big bat in the lineup. Lance Berkman has missed just about the entire 2012 season with a knee injury.
Yet the Cardinals won 90 games with the group last year and 88 this season.
Different team, similar results.
"They were not as good an offensive club without Albert," La Russa said. "They made a smart move with Beltran. But everybody who plays is a go-to guy. Even without Albert, look at their team. Everybody who goes up there is a threat. But they haven't replaced Albert. It just proves they're a deep ballclub. They don't have Lance and they don't have Albert. But with them, you couldn't play Allen Craig every day. Now you can play him. They've compensated to a certain extent. They're very dangerous."
La Russa spent the last 16 seasons of his career managing the Cards after successful stints with the White Sox and A's. He won the 1989 World Series in Oakland and the 2006 and '11 titles in St. Louis. La Russa's teams won six pennants, and he compiled 2,728 regular-season victories.
As the mosaic of the game played out below him, La Russa claimed to be happy now as an observer.
"I enjoy second guessing sitting up here," he said. "I second guess everybody I see all game long."
Unlike the media, which writes, tweets and broadcasts its second guesses, La Russa said he's content to keep it all to himself.
"I haven't forgotten how hard it is."
-- La Russa
"Up here, the game is easy," La Russa said. "Down there, you know how tough it is. I haven't forgotten how hard it is."
And make no mistake about it, La Russa has just turned 68 and he wants no part of life anymore in the dugout. When he's managing, La Russa is a man possessed by the game and his job. Last year was a very tough one for him as he battled shingles and was never really healthy. La Russa knew he couldn't face another season with the same intensity, so he left on his own terms, returning only to manage the NL to an All-Star Game win this past July in Kansas City. He is obviously more content and relaxed.
"I don't miss managing," La Russa said. "I miss winning and losing some. Someday I'll probably get back to winning and losing, but not as a manager."
Until then, La Russa will try to be a conscientious objector and push for the Cardinals among his former teams and many friends, he said. Last week, he was in the press box across the bay at the Coliseum for Games 3 and 4 of the American League Division Series. Those days, he may have been partial to the A's, who played with "tremendous guts and were amazing," he said.
"That put 'Moneyball' to rest," La Russa added about a team that lost in five games to the Tigers, who are managed by his good friend Jim Leyland. "A lot of those guys don't even look good on 'Moneyball.'"
As far as the rest of it goes:
"I root for the teams I was involved with -- Chicago, Oakland, St. Louis," La Russa said. "I root for friends who I respect and hope that they do well. Sometimes they play each other, and may the best team win."
Right now, the Cards appear to be the best team in the NL. And La Russa doesn't seem too unhappy about that.