What if the Cardinals kept Torre?

Posted by Scott Wuerz on January 24, 2014 

While we're all stewing about the fact that former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is going into the Hall of Fame without the hometown team's logo on his cap, I can't help but notice that no one along the banks of the Mississippi seems to be offended that former St. Louis skipper Joe Torre opted to wear a New York Yankees lid for eternity.

Torre, who never won a World Series as a player or during managerial stops with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, or the Redbirds before he made the Fall Classic a regular stop with the Bronx Bombers, chose to be remembered in the duds of the team in which he reached his highest highs. Cardinals fans can respect that.

Some folks are claiming La Russa's time with the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox were comparable enough to the Cardinals to muddy the waters about which cap he should have chosen for the Hall of Fame. Personally, I don't buy it because La Russa won more games and World Series with the Redbirds than he did with the Pale Hose and the A's, combined. He's the winningest manager in Cardinals history and the number of years he served with the Birds is a major consideration. In the modern era, how many managers spend 16 consecutive seasons in one spot?

For those who think La Russa might have made it to the Hall of Fame without the Cardinals, let's alter history a little bit and consider how things might have panned out if Bill DeWitt and company decided to sign Torre to a contract extension after they bought the club instead of pulling the plug on Torre and luring La Russa away from Oakland.

Torre wasn't exactly terrible in St. Louis. He managed the Cardinals to a .498 winning percentage even though he had the sorriest group of talent the to represent the Cardinals since World War One during his five-year stay here.

Hired after Whitey Herzog walked away from the Redbirds in 1990 because the Anheuser-Busch refused to spend money to put a competitive club on the field following the death of Gussie Busch, Torre inherited a roster of untested prospects, journeymen and has beens.

The Cardinals "ace" in 1991 was former Expos hurler Bryn Smith who, at 35, managed to win 11 games. Bob Tewksbury, Omar Olivares, Ken Hill and Jose DeLeon rounded out the rotation. Yet, somehow, Torre mushed that team to an 84-78 record and a second-place finish to Barry Bonds and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Meanwhile La Russa was riding a team with an all-star lineup that included Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Harold Baines, Terry Steinbach, Carney Lansford, Ricky Henderson and Willie Wilson to the playoffs.

In 1993 the Cardinals lost Bryn Smith and managed another above .500 finish to come in third behind Pittsburgh and Montreal. La Russa lost Canseco to trade, McGwire to injury and Baines to free agency and Oakland went from first to worst.

As the talent faded, both managers saw their fortunes sag. La Russa would never finish in the first division again with Oakland while Torre's smoke and mirrors were never able to get the Cardinals over the top.

Despite a similar five-year run, Torre got fired while La Russa got a golden parachute. He took over the Cardinals just as DeWitt and company assumed control of the franchise and injected a much-needed infusion of cash into the payroll.

The Cardinals signed Ron Gant -- at the time the most splashy free agent acquisition in franchise history -- and then added veteran slugger Gary Gaetti, brought back fan favorite Willie McGee who was lost to cost cutting measures to La Russa's athletics in 1990 and added a pair of aces in Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre to the starting rotation. 

Presto!

La Russa took the spruced up Cardinals to the NL Central crown and made it within one game of the World Series before falling short. I wonder, if Joe Torre had all that talent added to his team if he wouldn't have done as well.

Well, the funny thing about that is the Yankees wanted an experienced manager who could handle big personalities to lead their star-studded line-up.

When Torre was fired by the Cardinals, they jumped at the chance to claim him off the scrap heap and he instantly led New York to a division title. Torre, however, didn't fall short in the league championship series. He won it -- and then went on to win the World Series. In all, Torre won four World Series in 12 years with the Yankees. So there's a pretty good chance that, armed with the talent La Russa enjoyed in St. Louis, that Torre might have had pretty similar results in St. Louis to what his replacement achieved.

Not attracted away from Oakland, La Russa would have had to deal with the turnover of Moneyball instead of the high-octane, high-priced talent he enjoyed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Maybe he would have watered down his record and soured voters on his Hall of Fame credentials.

Had the Cardinals stuck with Torre, might we be celebrating the fact that Joe was going to the Hall of Fame with a St. Louis cap instead of worrying about what Tony La Russa was thinking.

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