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Differing views on Tony La Russa’s contract

One theory suggests Tony La Russa should not sign a one-year contract to return to the St. Louis Cardinals. I disagree with the logic.

Tony La Russa (AP photo)In the Post-Dispatch on Saturday, columnist Bernie Miklasz returned to a topic he has weighed in on previously over the years – the duration of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa’s contract.

Miklasz again offers his view that La Russa being in lame duck status every season has a negative effect on the team, eroding his authority and hurting player motivation.

His solution? Miklasz believes that if La Russa returns to the club for 2011, he should sign a multi-year contract of at least two and possibly three years.

I disagree, much more with the supporting logic than I do with the conclusion itself. I don’t think the contract duration matters.

Here’s why. At 66 years of age and after repeatedly hinting his managerial end is near, La Russa will continue to be a lame duck until the day he finally announces he no longer wants to manage, contract or not. The only question in the interim is how lame.

As Miklasz admits in the article, La Russa always has the option of retiring. Therefore the annual threat/fear of him leaving is not altered by him having a contract for the next year.

If the clubhouse is not fully motivated and some players have tuned La Russa out, a piece of paper that says 2012 or 2013 instead of 2011 isn’t going to be a positive factor, in my opinion. It may not matter at all, or in some cases, the converse might even be argued.

In at least the last four years and perhaps longer, the just-retired Bobby Cox entered each season with no deal in place for the next year. He continued to manage under a series of one-year extensions with the Braves until announcing prior to the 2010 season that it would be his last. If there were concerns in recent years coming out of Atlanta that Cox’ plans were impeding the team’s results on the field, I never heard them.

Certainly the subject is unavoidable. At this juncture of La Russa’s career and considering the uncertainties he injects into the process, the questions will return every summer and fall about the manager’s plans for the upcoming season. Those questions will come from his players, the fans and the media alike.

All a multi-year contract would accomplish is to legally allow the Cardinals to restrict La Russa from managing elsewhere.

Let’s face it. That “security” is pretty much worthless.

If La Russa approached ownership and was firm in his view that he no longer wanted to manage the Cardinals, would they force him to stay against his will? Of course, they wouldn’t. They would release him from his contract.

While no one fully understands La Russa’s value system, might making a multi-year commitment up front cause him to feel an obligation to stay through the entire term, even if he has a change of heart later? Would it be good for anyone if La Russa stayed on for years two and three if he was no longer fully committed to the job?

Further, the Cardinals may want to keep their options open by not committing to multiple years of La Russa. The club has finished weakly in each of the last four years, with just one post-season berth earned despite a very competitive core of players. In addition, there has been enough off-field controversy surrounding the skipper in recent years to warrant caution going forward.

Though not mentioned by Miklasz, some suggest that one potential benefit of an extended La Russa deal would be a demonstration to Albert Pujols that the organization is planning stability into at least the first year of the superstar’s potential free agency.

I don’t buy that logic as Pujols has to understand the reality. No matter what, La Russa will not be his manager for the vast majority of his new contract. I believe there is a wide variety of other far more important factors in Pujols’ upcoming decision.

Bottom line, I don’t see how a multi-year contract for La Russa makes a positive difference, while perhaps actually limiting flexibility.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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