ST. LOUIS — Tony La Russa tended to his many pets on the West Coast for a week or so, and made up his mind: He wanted to keep managing.
Now, he’s hoping the St. Louis Cardinals can make an equally quick decision on hiring a general manager.
La Russa agreed Monday to a two-year contract to stay in St. Louis, confident that the Cardinals can still be contenders. Whether he’ll ever work out his rift with Scott Rolen remains to be seen.
“You’ve got to be honest, he’s probably the one guy who has issues with me,” La Russa said. “You hope he’s healthy, understand we have issues, and don’t let it get in the way.”
A year after winning the World Series, the Cardinals endured a disappointing 78-win season. General Manager Walt Jocketty, who hired La Russa in 1995, was fired earlier this month.
The 63-year-old La Russa never courted offers from other teams. He would have preferred the new GM give the OK for his return, but La Russa felt it was important to finalize his status heading into free agency.
Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said all the GM candidates he’s talked to have said they’d have no problem working with La Russa.
“I’m real pleased it worked out,” La Russa said. “I’m thrilled to be back.”
La Russa has led St. Louis to seven playoff appearances, six NL Central championships, two pennants and the 2006 World Series win over Detroit. His Oakland team won the 1989 World Series.
DeWitt expects to hire a new GM by the end of the World Series. The candidates are all assistant GMs, including former Jocketty top aide John Mozeliak.
“The sooner the better, ideally,” DeWitt said.
La Russa also said he’d gotten positive feedback from players with the notable exception of Rolen, the star third baseman with whom he’s clashed repeatedly the past few seasons.
La Russa twice benched him in the 2006 playoffs, displeased that Rolen failed to disclose the extent of a shoulder injury. Rolen disagreed with the manager’s handling of the situation.
Most of the roster is happy to have him back.
“I’ve played for a lot of managers and as far as running a bullpen, I’d put him up there with Bobby Cox as the best in the majors,” reliever Russ Springer said. “He’s a winning manager, the fans love him and he gets respect from managers across the league.”
La Russa said the firing of Jocketty was not a huge surprise, given the front-office squabble that developed with Jeff Luhnow, vice president in charge of amateur scouting and player development. The two clashed in philosophy, Jocketty’s old-school approach vs. Luhnow’s new-school numbers crunching.
“I was surprised that it happened like it happened,” La Russa said. “But I was not surprised there were issues.”
La Russa finished a three-year deal at the end of the season. He said two years was the right length because a one-year contract would prompt questions from the start.
“One is the wrong message because from spring training on it’s the same deal,” La Russa said. “Two lets the players know I’m back for more than one.”
La Russa’s name had surfaced as a possible replacement for Joe Torre, who left the Yankees after 12 seasons, but the Cardinals manager denied interest in that job. La Russa took over the Cardinals after Torre was fired midway through the 1995 season.
The often prickly La Russa, though, disagreed with speculation he’d have difficulty operating in New York.
“It’s surprising that there are opinions about the job of managing or about me personally (from people) who don’t really know me,” La Russa said. “I think managing is a very challenging thing, no matter where you do it. Nobody gets a free pass.”
He had weighed leaving after a trying season in which the defending World Series champions finished 78-84. The year got off to a rocky start before the season even began when La Russa was arrested on a drunken-driving charge in March near the team’s spring training complex in Florida.
In May, Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock died after a drunken-driving accident. Several players were lost for long stretches because of injuries and staff ace Chris Carpenter pitched only in the season opener.
La Russa is 1,055-887 (.543) with the Cardinalsand is third on the career wins list with a lifetime record of 2,375-2,070 (.534) that also includes stints with the Chicago White Soxand Oakland A’s. He was AL Manager of the Year in 1983, 1988 and 1992, and NL Manager of the Year in 2002.
Mozeliak has been productive as the interim GM, picking up the option on closer Jason Isringhausen and re-signing starter Joel Pineiro and Springer.
“I really don’t feel like I’m being interviewed over three weeks or something like that,” Mozeliak said. “I think they know what I’m capable of doing and Bill just wants to make sure whoever he puts in place he’s comfortable with.”