ST. LOUIS — For the first time since 1996, his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa plans to drive home to Northern California.
The biggest reason for the road trip is to reduce clutter in an office loaded with knickknacks and books, but he will no doubt use those long hours on the highway to ponder what went wrong in his 15th season and whether he wants to return for a 16th.
He said he thinks the Cardinals want him back for another year after attending an owners' party Sunday night and sitting at Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.'s table.
"And he didn't pull the chair out when I sat down," La Russa said.
La Russa, who turned 66 on Monday, was scheduled to meet with DeWitt and Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak before leaving town, and La Russa expects to make an announcement in a week or so. He indicated that if he stays he will want another one-year contract.
The Cardinals were 86-76 in one of the strangest underachieving seasons in La Russa's long career. They had a 20-game winner, a home run and an RBI champion — who will be one of the top contenders for National League MVP — and a strong contender for NL rookie of the year.
They were supposed to be the class of the NL Central before a second-half swoon fueled by too many losses to non-contending teams left them playing out the string.
"You play the what-if game anyway. It's inescapable, it's how you're supposed to improve," La Russa said.
Last year, La Russa worried that he might have overstayed his welcome, and this year he voiced those concerns in stronger terms. He said a couple of possibilities have come up in the last year or so, but it was tough to think of joining another team.
"If you're going year-to-year, where is that situation you find that's fair?" La Russa said. "I think there is an issue — 15 years is a long time for one guy at one place. And at some time it's going to be good when the new guy comes in."
The high points from the season: Adam Wainwright won 20 games for the first time after falling a win short in 2009, Albert Pujols had 42 home runs and 118 RBIs for his first RBI title, and lefty Jaime Garcia was 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA in his first season. Chris Carpenter won 16 games, and Matt Holliday lived up to his huge contract after a slow start.
"I'm not blind to the fact that it's a pretty special thing to do for a pitcher," Wainwright said. "But at the same time, it's kind of all for naught when you don't make the playoffs."
All those big names would have made the Cardinals a tough postseason team. They've got to get there first, and could not overcome major injuries to Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and David Freese that left them scrambling for rotation arms and a decent replacement at third base.
Most puzzling of all was their inability to beat the bad teams. St. Louis appeared to take control of the Central when they swept a three-game series in Cincinnati in early August. Then came a 2-8 trip against also-rans Pittsburgh, Washington and Houston that the Cardinals never recovered from.
"Some of those things, it's hard to put a finger on," Colby Rasmus said. "This year was even more of a kick to the sack. It's kind of rough."
La Russa doesn't know why, either.
"It's mind-boggling," he said. "But there's something there to learn, and we'll learn it."
Depth was an issue all season given a top-heavy payroll with Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright and Carpenter hogging much of the money. A new deal with Pujols, entering the club option of his contract at $16 million, will have to be forged.
"How the money works out, that's always the question," La Russa said. "You play the long season, you need as many pieces as you can get."
As for the manager, Pujols left no doubt about La Russa.
"I would love to have him back. Who doesn't want to have him back in this clubhouse?" Pujols asked.
First, the long drive back to the West Coast.
"I don't want to make it a soap opera and be a drama queen, or king," La Russa said. "I'm sure you've noticed I don't have a great-looking office and a big trunk that's full of stuff. So I'm going to take a bunch of stuff, clean it out. And this will give me some days to sift through things."