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SAS CITY -- It happened so often, it almost took on a vaudeville feel. The setup, the pause, and the punchline delivered with perfect timing, every time. A few hours before the Cardinals were set to play, traveling secretary C.J. Cherre would peek in manager Tony La Russa's office, checking on whether La Russa required any tickets or field passes for friends, family or guests.
"Need anything, skipper?" Cherre would ask.
If La Russa had a request, of course, he'd offer it up. If he didn't, which was plenty often, he had a ready response. "Five in the first," he'd quip.
On Tuesday night, in La Russa's final game in a big league dugout, he got his request. His NL lineup churned out five runs against reigning American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, putting the 83rd All-Star Game almost out of reach before the AL team even came to bat. La Russa said afterward that two of his coaches noted he'd gotten exactly what he always asks for.
Then with three more runs in the fourth, the NL lived up to another of La Russa's favorite lines: he often said he wanted to "get so far ahead that [he] couldn't screw it up." It was a perfect night for La Russa, his longtime first lieutenant Dave Duncan and the rest of the 2011 Cardinals' coaches. They got one last night together and best of all, one last win.
"You just get wrapped up like you usually do in trying to win the game," La Russa said. "It consumes you. The last couple of innings, the coaches and I talked about it, it rarely happens where you can enjoy the moment, and I enjoyed it."
It was at least the fifth time that La Russa suited up knowing it might be his final time in a big league uniform -- following the end of the 2011 regular season and three win-or-go-home games in the postseason. So he was never worried about managing his emotions. Just about winning a ballgame.
"It's easy to slip right into concern about how we're going to pitch and who we're going to play when," La Russa said. "If you keep score, you try to win. It's simple."
Amid all the celebration of La Russa's final farewell, though, it might also have been Duncan's last game. Duncan served as pitching coach for nearly all of La Russa's 33-year managing career. He had been scheduled to return to the Cardinals in 2012, but instead took a leave of absence to tend to his wife, Jeanine, who underwent brain surgery last year.
Duncan said Tuesday that Jeanine is doing well -- that there's been no change in her condition and that counts as good news. He seems perfectly content to serve as a consultant to the Cardinals second and a husband and father first. He's savoring the opportunity, not worrying about whether it's the last time.
"I don't really think about it," he said. "I've been asked that several times. I did it a long time. So it wouldn't bother me if this was the last time, but I'm not saying it's going to be."
La Russa was much more emphatic than Duncan about his future. He's definitely done managing, he said. He currently works for Major League Baseball and would be open to a front-office job with a club at some point. But he said he does not miss being in the dugout. And when he was asked if he believed this was his last time in uniform, he was emphatic.
"I don't believe that," La Russa said. "I know that."
If it's also the end for Duncan, it's the capper on a career so distinguished that there's a case for him as a Hall of Fame candidate. He turned around one pitcher's career after another, helming pitching staffs that always seemed to overachieve -- and always kept hitters on their toes.
Duncan was known best for his preparation, for game plans that specifically attacked hitters' weaknesses and maximized his pitchers' strengths. He admitted that he does much less of that game-planning for an All-Star Game.
"I learned at previous All-Star Games, I spent a lot of time preparing, and then when the time came, they really aren't interested," Duncan said. "They just want to play."
Whatever his level of involvement, Duncan went out with a pitching coach's dream: a shutout. And La Russa went out with a win. Just like old times.