Working together, the manager and GM brought great results for the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals.
The two men with the highest-profile jobs running the St. Louis Cardinals on the field and off come from very different backgrounds.
One is a 65-year-old who has worn the uniform of a major league manager for over 30 years and is a future Hall of Famer. He has a pair of World Championships and over 2,500 career wins in the dugout, approaching half with St. Louis.
The other is a quarter century younger, a man who worked his way up through the system to become the general manager of one of the most storied franchises in the history of Major League Baseball.
It now seems longer ago than just two years when the former boss of both Tony La Russa and John Mozeliak was summarily fired. Then-general manager Walt Jocketty was responsible for bringing both men to St. Louis. La Russa arrived as field manager prior to the 1996 season, having worked with Jocketty in Oakland. Mozeliak served under Jocketty in Colorado and traveled with him when he joined the Cardinals the year prior to La Russa’s arrival.
After internal political pressure over investment and protection of the player development pipeline hastened Jocketty’s departure following the 2007 season, an external GM search was fruitless. In-house candidate Mozeliak was charged with bringing all parties together while keeping the organization moving forward.
Though the club missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season in 2008, Mozeliak made great headway in laying the groundwork for the future. He signed co-ace Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina to smart long-term contracts and resolved a very challenging situation with Scott Rolen by swapping him to Toronto for Troy Glaus.
No one can make perfect moves every time as Mozeliak gambled and lost on troubled shortstop Khalil Greene and seems to have overpaid for Kyle Lohse. Yet he also diffused two other potential clubhouse situations by moving Adam Kennedy and Chris Duncan.
In 2009, Mozeliak’s in-season adjustments helped the Cardinals take their first division crown since 2006. He acquired Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo via trade, added John Smoltz and signed relievers Ryan Franklin and Trever Miller to contract extensions.
While the organizational tension could have crushed their relationship, instead Mozeliak offers a calming influence behind the fiery La Russa. Sometimes it requires tact to diffuse La Russa dreams like signing Barry Bonds or having 46-year-old Mark McGwire appear as a pinch-hitter, yet Mo seems up for the job.
Because La Russa has the decorated career and works for a perennial contender, it is more difficult for him to contend for game-wide recognition. Yet he was close to receiving the Manager of the Year Award in a sixth career season in 2009.
Though Colorado’s Jim Tracy received the 2009 NL nod, La Russa came in second. He took a club that most experts placed second or third in its division prior to the season and brought it in with 91 wins and a 7-1/2 game cushion in the NL Central. In the process, he coaxed career years from stars as well as the unlikely before falling uncharacteristically early in the post-season.
Starting his 32nd season in a job that many can’t hold for more than a couple means La Russa is a true survivor. As with anyone in such a public role for so long, the manager has his detractors. Yet his players are the first to defend him as always having their backs.
While La Russa remains one of the premier managers in the game, he is hinting his time in the role is nearing its end. He took several weeks following the conclusion of the 2009 season deciding whether or not to return for 2010 and when he did, it was only via a one-year contract, his first since joining the Cardinals.
Perhaps La Russa has even a little more fire in his belly to try to bring the 11th World Championship to St. Louis in 2010. It would be his third crown as an MLB manager and Mozeliak’s first in the head role.
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