10/31/2011 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

Tony La Russa Retires: An Unforgettable Baseball Legacy Examined

He has three World Series titles. He's second all-time in postseason victories. And he's amassed 2,728 regular season wins, good for third most all-time.

Now, Tony LaRussa has announced that he's retiring from baseball. But at his core, Tony La Russa will always be a baseball man.

He loves everything about the game. He loves his team, tinkering with the lineup to find perfection; he loves batting practice and the way a ballpark smells.

But perhaps the one thing he enjoys the most is preparation. Preparation is what fuels him to make all of those cringing late-game pitching changes. It is why he and catcher Yadier Molina talk incessantly about hitters' tendencies at the plate in between innings. It is why he has won so consistently.

"The one thing we always talk to our players about is preparation," La Russa told me. "Preparing yourself to win is the most important thing." La Russa, who has been a close personal friend for more than a decade, also confided in me at challenging times during the series.

After a brutal Game 2 loss to the Rangers, which saw the Cardinals blow a 1-0 lead in a ninth inning rally, he openly blamed himself for Ian Kinsler's crucial steal.

"I should have thrown over there one more time to keep him closer," he said. "I didn’t want to pitch out because I wasn't sure [if he was stealing], but I should have kept him [honest]."

When sitting at his desk hours before Game 6's first pitch looking at various statistic splits, La Russa was like a chemistry professor going over detailed problem sets. He never deviated. He remained focused, yet eerily personable. He even joked about some of his managing gaffes. When a writer from the St. Louis Dispatch came into interview him and offered a few tough questions, he remained respectfully confident.

"I'm not saying I'm smarter than you," he said. "But I know our club a lot better than you do."

That's vintage La Russa. He hasn’t always endeared himself to the media and wasn’t loved by every player. But like him or not, he does know his team better than anybody else. Thirty-three years into a brilliant managerial career, the fire and belief was still ever present -- his leadership and vision were the linchpin to the Cardinals' 11th World Series crown, their second under La Russa.

Case in point: Earlier in the year, when the Cards' were just beginning a late season tailspin and seemingly out of Wild Card contention, he spoke with little known third baseman David Freese in the clubhouse. Now a local hero (he grew up just outside of St. Louis), Freese was struggling at the time. But La Russa remained steadfast in his commitment to him.

"I'm starting you again today," he told him an hour and a half before a mid-July game against the Mets, HuffPost reported at the time. "Not a lot of guys would do that."

"I really like him," La Russa said afterwards. "He has a great approach at the plate. It's only a matter of time before he starts hitting."

As usual, his instincts were correct.

In recent weeks, Freese has won both the National League Championship Series and World Series MVPs: He hit .397 in the postseason with five home runs and 21 runs batted in, including a two-strike, RBI double in the ninth inning to tie Game 6.

When asked the significance of La Russa, Freese said: "Everything. He started it. That guy deserves all the credit. You know, he rallies the troops. He's got a plan with every thought, with everything he says. He's got a great idea of what it takes not only to win a game, but to get to this point, and for me to come to the big leagues and play under him right out of the gate, I couldn’t ask for anything more."

Veteran Reliever Octavio Dotel, who many believed was washed up when he came to the Cardinals, was one of many players to express gratitude to La Russa after Game 7. "Thank you for believing in me," he told him.

That is La Russa in a nutshell. He hasn’t always been loved by the people outside of his team. But with his extreme loyalty and commitment to winning, he has always endured the respect of his players. "Tony is not only my manager; he's like a daddy to me," Albert Pujols said in July.

At 67 years old, after 33 seasons -- 16 with St. Louis -- Tony La Russa is retiring from a brilliant career. His next stop? A first ballot vote into Cooperstown.

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