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La Russa's genius was getting players to believe

HOF manager skilled at instilling confidence in team, especially in tough times @RichardJustice

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals had just won Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, one of the great baseball games ever played. Twice, the Cardinals were one pitch away from being eliminated. Twice, they refused to lose. As his players celebrated, Cards manager Tony La Russa began preparing for the next day.

"If we don't win Game 7, it won't matter that we won this one," he told his coaches. He stayed up half the night thinking about how to get his players to flush Game 6 from their minds.

The next morning, he telephoned his two biggest stars, Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter. He instructed them to help other players focus on Game 7.

"I want you to put Game 6 in a box," La Russa said. "If someone mentions it, ignore them."

And so, the Cardinals prepared to win Game 7 by reminding one another again and again that Game 6 no longer mattered. La Russa told them the story of the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team and how it stunned the world by beating the Russians.

But that victory wouldn't have been as big a deal if the Americans hadn't also beaten Finland in the finals. To the people who've known and admired La Russa through the years, that 2011 World Series offers all kinds of insight into his genius and why he was elected to the Hall of Fame on Monday.

His legacy will be that he won the third-most games in history (2,728), revolutionized the use of the modern bullpen, and consistently put guys in a position to succeed with innovative lineups and defensive alignments.

But his real genius was dealing with players, getting them to focus and to believe. It was also in setting a standard of play.

For instance, when a young infielder made a mental error one night against the Mets, he was greeted by Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo when he reached the dugout after the inning.

And then Yadier Molina spoke to the kid. And then La Russa. Weeks later, La Russa put the moment in context.

"You can't ignore it," he said. "You can't wait until the next day. You have to deliver the message and let them know it's important how we play."

Late in August 2011, the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the National League Wild Card and fading fast. La Russa called a team meeting and made a couple of points. One was that players had to continue to play hard. Beyond that, La Russa reminded them that the Cards had set a standard for playing the game the right way.

That day when he went back to his office, he came up with a plan. If he wanted his players to believe, he had to believe himself. He decided to set up his pitching rotation for the remainder of the year.

He ran his finger down the schedule to Game 162 at Houston. He penciled in Chris Carpenter's name and worked backwards. If the Cardinals were going to the postseason, they'd probably need to win that game. And if that was the case, he wanted the franchise's hopes on Carpenter's shoulders. Carpenter beat the Astros in Game 162 to clinch a playoff berth and sent the Cards on their way to winning the World Series.

There are other examples. There was the long ago September when the Cardinals were so decimated by injuries that their postseason hopes were hanging by a thread. In the final weeks of that 2007 season, La Russa spoke to his players almost every single day down the stretch.

He sold them on hope. He told them that despite everything, they were still plenty good enough. He told them that he still trusted them.

"You guys have a chance to do something you'll remember for the rest of your lives," he said.

To La Russa, it was simple: Make good pitches. Play well defensively. Put a couple of rallies together. Do it one inning at a time. Don't think big picture.

"No one outside this room believes in us," he repeated a few dozen times.

The Cardinals finally came undone and missed the playoffs entirely. It won't be remembered as La Russa's greatest season, because it didn't end with a championship parade. But it might have been.

He worked tirelessly to keep the Cards focused. He convinced them to keep fighting. No manager was better at getting players to believe in themselves.

And sometimes, if a player didn't believe or lacked La Russa's commitment to winning, he was shown the door.

"When we make a trade," former Cardinal Lance Berkman once said, "sometimes it's as important to pay attention to who is leaving as who is coming."

Again, though, it always comes back to effort and teamwork and all those cliches. La Russa consistently kept his players focused.

For instance, there was one year when the Cardinals were picked to finish low in the NL Central standings. Before that season, La Russa called a team meeting and outlined an approach for his players.

"One inning at a time," he said.

His players believed him, in part because he had a track record. That year, the Cards began to win, and then when they kept winning, their confidence grew, and they ended up back in the postseason.

One afternoon a couple of years ago, a reporter walked into La Russa's office four hours before a game. He found him hunched over his desk with charts and colored pens and a ruler.

To prepare himself for the game, La Russa was doing spray charts on where every opposing batter hit the ball against his pitchers. Those spray charts would dictate the Cardinals' defensive positioning, but it was more than that.

La Russa was playing the game in his head. He was going through probable late-inning matchups by examining both benches and looking at what the opposing manager would be trying to do. In that way, little that happened late in the actual game would be a surprise. He was obsessive about every detail.

During his last season, a reporter he'd known for years saw him in the hallway and said, "Hey, Tony, how's it going?"

He smiled and nodded, then turned into a meeting. Suddenly, he spun around and confronted the guy.

"What did you say?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," I muttered. "I know better."

One of his superstitions was never to answer that kind of question. His typical answer was: "Ask me at 11 tonight."

He figured guys who'd been around him a long time should have known better than to ask. He was correct.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

St. Louis Cardinals