Among Walt Jocketty’s many successful acquisitions as Cardinals general manager, including players such as Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria and Chris Carpenter, the most significant was the manager he hired, Tony La Russa.
In replacing Mike Jorgensen, who had been interim manager after Joe Torre was fired in June 1995, La Russa was seen by Jocketty and team president Mark Lamping as the on-field leader needed to transform the Cardinals from disgruntled underachievers to classy contenders.
“The hiring of Tony La Russa to manage the Cardinals is a huge step in the rebuilding process of this organization,” said Jocketty, who had replaced Dal Maxvill as general manager a year earlier.
Said La Russa to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I believe in high goals and I believe in big dreams. My dream real quickly for this franchise is to draw 3 million fans. And, as early as possible, to get to Sept. 1 with a chance to win.
“When you look at me, you’re going to find a very simple perspective. Everything from this moment on will be geared to win the next game that the Cardinals play.”
At Oakland, La Russa took over an Athletics team that posted a losing record in 1986 and led them to three consecutive American League pennants (1988-90) and a World Series crown (1989). Before that, at Chicago, he led the White Sox to their first division title (1983).
La Russa, 51, inherited a Cardinals club that had experienced consecutive losing seasons (1994-95) and hadn’t been to the postseason since 1987 under manager Whitey Herzog.
Observers such as Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz said too many Cardinals players had developed poor attitudes and “disgraced the uniform and sacred tradition of St. Louis baseball with their selfish, lax play.”
Said La Russa: “My statement to all Cardinals fans is that we’re going to have a hustling, aggressive ballclub that plays the game right.
“If somebody loafs, they will embarrass our franchise and everybody else. The first time they do that, you pull them aside. The second time they do it, you take their money. The third time they do it, you take them out of the lineup.”
In endorsing the hiring of La Russa, Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi said, “He’s kind of like bringing Whitey Herzog back.”
Cards make a pitch
According to a report in the Oct. 6 Post-Dispatch, Jocketty and La Russa met informally in San Francisco to discuss the Cardinals job. Eleven days later, Rick Hummel reported that Jocketty and Lamping had met with La Russa in St. Louis.
“We had a good meeting, but I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Jocketty told an Oakland reporter.
Jeff Gordon, a Post-Dispatch columnist, wrote: “Somebody has to remake the attitude of this ballclub and the culture of the organization.”
On Oct. 19, the Cardinals made La Russa an offer. He asked for time to consider it. Davey Johnson, former manager of the Mets and Reds, was a backup candidate if La Russa balked at the opportunity, the Post-Dispatch reported.
In his book “One Last Strike,” La Russa revealed he indeed was considering other offers.
“I had a few opportunities to consider, including returning to Chicago and the White Sox,” La Russa said. “I’d hoped to sign on with Baltimore; something about that legendary franchise and the great tradition of Earl Weaver really appealed to me. But when I’d interviewed with them, I’d thought the position was already vacant.
“As it turned out, it wasn’t, so when I found that out I immediately called back and said thanks but no thanks.”
Providing the tools
Jocketty, who had worked in the Oakland front office, was a big reason La Russa eventually felt comfortable going to St. Louis. La Russa also was able to bring with him coaches Dave Duncan, Dave McKay and Tommie Reynolds from Oakland to St. Louis.
Miklasz, noting the Athletics finished in last place under La Russa in 1995, opined, “La Russa will only be as effective as the players he manages … Now that Cardinals president Mark Lamping and general manager Walt Jocketty have persuaded La Russa to join the home team, they owe it to La Genius to give him a competitive roster.”
Jocketty delivered, acquiring impact players such as third baseman Gary Gaetti, shortstop Royce Clayton, outfielders Ron Gant and Willie McGee and pitchers Andy Benes, Todd Stottlemyre, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt for La Russa’s first Cardinals team.
After a rocky start, including a public feud with shortstop and franchise icon Ozzie Smith, La Russa led the 1996 Cardinals to a National League Central Division championship.
La Russa would manage the Cardinals for 16 seasons, achieving a franchise-record 1,408 wins and joining Billy Southworth as the only managers to win two World Series titles with the Cardinals.
On July 27, 2014, La Russa and Torre (who went on to achieve spectacular success with the Yankees after leaving the Cardinals) were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.