ST. LOUIS -- The late Bill Walsh, who retired as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1989, eventually expressed regret that he didn't have the opportunity to take off the headset, wait a month and exhale before making his decision.
Tony La Russa, manager of the Oakland Athletics at the time, can relate to Walsh's plight now that his future in St. Louis is nearing a crossroads.
The Cardinals, baseball's defending World Series champs, were officially eliminated from contention Friday, and now they're resigned to being a spoiler amid a season that ranks somewhere between disappointing and catastrophic.
In a perfect world, La Russa would watch a California sunset, spend time with his Animal Rescue Foundation and clear his head before hitting the road or committing to the team he's managed since 1996. But time is a luxury La Russa can't afford. Waiting only fuels more rumors and speculation and delays the process of management's making things right in 2008.
"The problem is, when the season is over and you're on hold, your organization is on hold," La Russa said. "You have them in limbo. So it's not really fair to the organization."
As a result, La Russa will sit down with St. Louis ownership shortly after the team's season finale against Pittsburgh on Sunday and determine his future. All the developments that made the 2007 season such an ordeal -- from his spring training drunken-driving arrest to the death of reliever Josh Hancock, from Juan Encarnacion's bizarre eye injury to the Rick Ankiel HGH flap to the loss of Chris Carpenter and Scott Rolen to injury -- won't be any less galling in hindsight. But once the games end, La Russa will at least be free to listen to the voice within rather than worrying about who's going to bat ninth behind his pitcher.
Don't expect him to dawdle. It's not in his makeup.
"Tony's decisive, so I don't expect a lot of waffling," said Bill DeWitt, the Cardinals' chairman and general partner. "He'll say, 'I want to come back or don't want to come back' or 'I want to retire or keep managing.' If he decides to retire or go someplace else, we have to deal with that."
DeWitt reiterated to ESPN.com that La Russa did a "superb" job in 2007 and that it's strictly the manager's call whether he returns.
"I've been consistent all through the year, through the good times and bad," DeWitt said. "I've always said Tony is an excellent manager and we want him to continue managing the Cardinals. I'd say it again today, and I'll say it the last day of the season. He knows that, so there's no issue there."
Still, as the playoffs approach and the Cardinals prepare to go home, there are issues aplenty in St. Louis. Fans aren't happy that the team payroll, a tick under $89 million on Opening Day 2006, was a hair above $90 million this season. Never mind that the Cardinals pursued free-agent starters Jason Schmidt, Randy Wolf and Miguel Batista last winter, only to come up short.
The uncertainty goes beyond La Russa to general manager Walt Jocketty, whose future is only marginally less unsettled. Jocketty didn't have a great winter, committing $46 million to free agents Jim Edmonds, Mark Mulder, Adam Kennedy and Kip Wells. But even though he's produced six postseason teams since 2000 and is respected throughout the game, the Cardinals seem strangely slow to commit to him.
In November 2006, after Detroit lost to St. Louis in the World Series, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave GM David Dombrowski an extension through 2011. The Cardinals, meanwhile, exercised Jocketty's 2008 option before the Series but have refrained from giving him an extension.
The team's approach is more a commentary on DeWitt's deliberate way of doing business than Jocketty's performance, but it's fueling speculation that Jocketty isn't long for St. Louis. There's been a runaway rumor that Jocketty is bound for Cincinnati, and he was briefly mentioned as a candidate in San Francisco before the Giants extended Brian Sabean's contract.
Jocketty, for his part, claims he's happy in St. Louis.
"I would hope to stay here," he said. "It's a great place to work, a good organization, and my kids are still in school."
But DeWitt was noncommittal when asked about a possible extension for his general manager. He said he expects the topic to come up in the offseason and left it at that.
Meanwhile, the friction in the St. Louis front office endures. Last year Jeff Luhnow, the team's scouting director, assumed a broader role as the man in charge of amateur and international scouting as well as the farm system. Luhnow, a Northwestern Business School graduate, comes from a nontraditional background, having worked as a management consultant before joining the Cardinals. Inevitably, his expanded role fueled press box gossip that he's being groomed by ownership to take Jocketty's place.
Baseball sources said Jocketty does not regard Luhnow as an imminent threat to his job. But Luhnow's promotion led to the reassignment of Jocketty's longtime friend and confidant Bruce Manno and has been the source of tension in the team's baseball operation. The relationship between Jocketty and Luhnow is so chilly, assistant general manager John Mozeliak has to serve as a buffer between them.
If that's a problem, DeWitt believes it's not insurmountable.
"I would guess there's probably tension in all organizations and front offices in one form or another," DeWitt said. "I try not to be too concerned with the office politics."
I've always said Tony is an excellent manager and we want him to continue managing the Cardinals. I'd say it again today, and I'll say it the last day of the season. He knows that, so there's no issue
-- Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt on Tony La Russa
DeWitt also shot down speculation that Luhnow was brought in to take Jocketty's place.
"So many people have said, 'Walt's gone, Jeff is going to be the general manager,'" DeWitt said. "But Jeff wasn't hired to be groomed as a general manager. He was hired to do a job, and he's doing that job. I think Jeff's functioning very well."
Luhnow's 2005 draft, which produced outfielder Colby Rasmus and pitchers Jaime Garcia and Chris Perez, was rated fourth-best in the game by Baseball America. Since then, he's taken the Cardinals in a different direction, focusing on college players with gaudy statistics rather than high-schoolers with "tools." It remains to be seen whether the numbers translate to success in the pros.
Once La Russa's future is settled, the biggest item on the Cardinals' offseason agenda is upgrading the pitching. Carpenter isn't likely to contribute much next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late July, and Mulder has been slow to recover from shoulder problems. That leaves Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper and a bunch of question marks.
Shortstop David Eckstein is a serious long shot to return, and Cardinals fans would love Kennedy to leave town right along with him. But the Cardinals owe Kennedy $7.5 million over the next two seasons, so it appears they're stuck with him.
The new hot rumor has the Cardinals pursuing Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria, a local favorite who left St. Louis as a free agent in 2004. Renteria, who's hitting .333, is dispensable with the emergence of young infielder Yunel Escobar in Atlanta. But the Cardinals won't trade Rasmus, who's in line to replace Edmonds as their center fielder in 2009, and they don't appear to have enough young pitching to match up with the Braves.
Although the rumor du jour has La Russa angling for the Seattle job -- which may or may not be open -- it's hard to see why La Russa would be in a rush to leave St. Louis. He's managing in a new ballpark, in a town with a passionate fan base, for a team with a wonderful tradition. His pitching coach and sidekick, Dave Duncan, is under contract through 2008, and he has a harmonious working relationship with Jocketty.
La Russa has had some run-ins with the local press -- most notably, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz -- but he's deluding himself if he thinks the media treatment will be kinder or gentler in numerous other markets.
More and more of late, the sentiment in St. Louis is that La Russa will return. While he values the support of ownership and fans, he's more concerned with knowing the players want him back.
"It is the most important thing," La Russa said. "If they're tired of your voice, why would you want to be around?"
La Russa's relationship with Rolen will always be touch and go, but Edmonds recently endorsed his return and Albert Pujols told reporters there's a "99.9 percent" chance La Russa will be back.
If so, the Cardinals will make it official next week when they begin looking ahead to 2008. For this St. Louis team, anything beats looking back.