Tony La Russa ends his career on top

In life, it very rarely works this way. In sports, it almost never does.

Ride on a parade float, showered in confetti, one day. Stroll off into the setting sun the next day.

This was the final chapter in the script that Tony La Russa got to write for himself Monday, the day he announced he was retiring as a big league manager. Francis Ford Coppola couldn't have written it any better.

At his press conference Monday morning, La Russa said the timing of this triumphant farewell was just a "coincidence." He said he had made this decision more than two months ago, long before his then-sputtering baseball team climbed out of the intensive care unit to win the World Series.

He said he told his general manager, John Mozeliak, back in August that this was going to be it. But he swore his players never knew, even as they were making their historic run to one of the most unlikely championships of all time. He said even his coaches never knew -- until he informed them Sunday.

So if that's really the truth, if that's really how this all played out, it makes the unprecedented story of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals even more astonishing. Doesn't it?

Not only were they completing one of sports' most remarkable comebacks when they won this World Series. They also were completing the career of one of the greatest managers who ever lived.

And make no mistake about what you just saw happen here. This rise from the crypt would not have been possible without one final managerial miracle from the amazing Tony La Russa.

This was more than just a case of the manager using his Einstein-esque brain power, his incredible instincts and his 33 years of experience to keep maneuvering the chess pieces into the right place at the right time, over and over and over.

This was about a manager who could talk the talk when the moment called for it.

When this postseason arrived, for instance, in all its unlikely splendor, Tony La Russa needed to make sure his team didn't feel as if it had accomplished anything just by sneaking into the tournament. So he gathered his players together and used a word that very few people in baseball would ever use -- not in public, anyway.

That word was "history."

He told his team it had a chance to make history. Then he challenged his troops to make it. And that challenge got their attention, in a unique and powerful way.

"When your manager is Tony La Russa, Hall of Famer, and he's telling you that you've made history, I think then you can appreciate it a little more, if that's possible," outfielder Allen Craig said.

"The history had to do with where we were at the end of August," hitting coach Mark McGwire said. "He kept talking about the history of coming back from 10& #189; games out, and how that had never been done before. … But it doesn't become history unless you finish it off."

Well, finishing it off seemed more unlikely than ever after the Cardinals' painful Game 5 loss in Texas, a loss that will forever be remembered for the manager's phone-gate snafu. But after that loss, before the Cardinals boarded the plane back home, La Russa got them together one more time.

"We had a great meeting," McGwire said. "Tony said, 'There's a reason for everything.' Then he started rattling things off, and finally, he said, 'Listen, we haven't had a chance to crack champagne in St. Louis, and now we're going back home. So just keep doing what you've been doing. Keep busting your butts. And we can crack champagne in St. Louis, in front of our fans.'"

That, as it turned out, was exactly what happened, amazingly enough. But it wasn't just this baseball team that was making history. It was the manager himself.

Take a deep breath now and consider La Russa's place in managerial history:

• This man has won three World Series. Eight other managers in history have won three or more -- but only one of those eight (Joe Torre) ever faced the challenge of winning a World Series in an era in which that required winning THREE postseason series.

• La Russa took his team to the World Series six times -- all during the division-play era. He and Torre are the only managers to reach the World Series that many times in an age in which finishing first doesn't automatically advance your team to the World Series.

• Just two other managers who ever lived -- Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) -- won more regular-season games than the 2,728 that La Russa won. Neither of those two managed a game in the last 60 years.

• La Russa won 500 games as a manager with three clubs (Cardinals, A's and White Sox). The only other manager in history to do that? Leo Durocher.

• And La Russa is one of only four managers in history to win a World Series with more than one team. Of the other four -- Bucky Harris, Bill McKechnie and Sparky Anderson -- only Anderson managed a game in the last half-century.

But even those numbers don't seem adequate to put La Russa's career in proper perspective. So let's think about what he's done this way:

He has won more games than Jim Leyland and Jack McKeon put together. He has taken his team to the postseason more times (14) than Dusty Baker, Terry Francona and Buck Showalter combined. And he finishes his career more games over .500 (363) than Ron Gardenhire, Mike Scioscia and Ozzie Guillen put together.

So if this is really it, it means La Russa is walking away just 35 wins shy of catching McGraw for second on the all-time wins list -- and only 14 wins away from pulling even with Torre for the most postseason wins of all time (84).

Because this man is so close to those powerful milestones, the people around him never seemed to suspect that he would choose this moment to walk away. And throughout his team's electrifying run through October, La Russa never gave any hint that this might be The End.

If anything, in fact, he gave off the vibe of a man who was enjoying this team as much as he ever had -- and talked at length about all the good things he foresaw happening with the Cardinals in 2012.

But behind all that upbeat talk was a man who was still battling the difficult aftereffects of a bout with shingles midseason. So health was a concern.

And privately, he had to suspect that if he returned next season, he might have to carry on without his greatest player -- Albert Pujols, who is heading for free agency -- and without one of his closest friends -- pitching coach Dave Duncan, who is also contemplating retirement as his wife recovers from brain tumor surgery.

So clearly, there were forces driving La Russa to turn the page, at 67. And now, they all make sense.

If we take him at his word, this would have been it even if his team had never played a game in October. If we take him at his word, he would have made this decision even without that one last glorious ride on the parade floats.

So it makes you wonder if there really is such a thing as destiny in sports. Either way, we would have looked at Tony La Russa as one of the greatest managers who ever set foot in any team's dugout. But now, we'll also remember him as a man who got to leave that dugout in a way no other manager before him ever did:

On top.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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