That sent into motion, after some shock, a search, ending with the organization's decision to tap Mike Matheny as La Russa's successor. The hire drew a gamut of reaction. Some questioned the organization's decision to choose a replacement with no previous managerial experience. Others lauded the pick, noting Matheny's long-time connection to the organization and his reputation as a respected leader.
One year later, Matheny's appointment can hardly be met with criticism. He led the Cardinals to an 88-win season and a return to the playoffs. The club played 13 postseason games, falling one victory short of advancing back to the World Series.
"He's done a tremendous job," general manager John Mozeliak said, shortly after the 2012 season concluded. "Being able to take this team and have the success it had, I think, is a great compliment to him and his staff. I especially say that given the turbulent times we went through in May and June. It could have gone in the other direction. Instead, he kept to his plan, stayed disciplined and rode it out, and we had success."
Days after dropping Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Giants, Matheny said he had yet to spend much time reflecting upon his first take as a big league manager. Some of that reflection will take place while sitting in a deer stand this fall. He'll spend other time reading, flipping through the pages of spiral notebooks.
On those pages are paragraphs, scribed by Matheny after every game this season. Diligent at journaling in personal life, Matheny found writing to be a means for growth in baseball, as well.
"A lot of times it's just rehashing while it's all fresh in my mind afterwards," Matheny said of his note taking. "Talk about things that I did that were successful. Talk about things that I did that weren't, what went into the thoughts.
"[After tough losses] were the times that I often wanted to get down and write and go through the whole thought-process. Just saying, 'This is what I was thinking. This is what went into it. This is how it all went south. This slipped through the cracks, and I should have caught that.' Those are things I wanted to have documented."
Matheny referenced the writings throughout the season but said he plans to digest the full volume this winter. It's one method he'll use in order to head into 2013 wiser and better prepared to manage on-field situations and off-field personalities.
"There were times during the season that I would have been an idiot not to look at, 'I did this and it didn't work. What could I have done differently?'" Matheny said. "To me, that's the only way you learn is to look at the mistakes you made and make the adjustment. Or have a real good reason why you did what you did and support the fact that you made the decision that you did."
Matheny dealt with myriad adversity during his first season at the helm, beginning almost immediately with the departures of first baseman Albert Pujols and pitching coach Dave Duncan. The month of March wasn't even halfway over, then, before the Cardinals learned they'd be playing indefinitely without ace Chris Carpenter.
The injuries piled up throughout the season, and many of the players afflicted were key contributors. The Cardinals received little from Lance Berkman and Kyle McClellan. Jaime Garcia found his shoulder compromised just two months into the season. Carpenter didn't return until September; by then, Rafael Furcal had already suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
And while they never landed on the disabled list, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran dealt with nagging injury issues throughout the year. Matheny said he was pleased with how the club pushed through the setbacks.
"The team, overall, I never really saw them go flat because of the adversity," Matheny said. "It was almost like there were times when the adversity brought more out of them.
"I always am quick to say that those [setbacks] present opportunities, and I saw opportunities for young players to step up like they all did. All those guys got put on the radar because of these issues. I didn't go into the season thinking that everybody was going to be around for all of Spring Training and 162 [games] plus the postseason. That's just not realistic."
Matheny sat high in April and early May, when the team raced out to a National League Central-best 20-11 start. He then kept the club together through a tumultuous period to follow. The inability to sustain consistent offensive production, and a deficiency in bunt execution and situational hitting, was largely to blame for that stall.
Those latter two issues, Matheny said, will be particularly emphasized during instruction next spring.
The club righted itself with enough time to secure the second Wild Card spot and go on another deep postseason run. It was, while short of the organization's goal to repeat as champions, enough for Matheny to consider his first year a success.
"Overall, I agree with the [feedback] that I'm getting, and that's these guys played hard, and they were fun to watch," Matheny said. "They were exciting. And I know that just like the fans are disappointed that [we didn't advance further], we all feel the same way. We were right there. But you put your best foot forward and you see how it all plays out."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.