"We didn't know what to expect," said pitcher Chris Carpenter, who won Game 7 of the World Series against Texas on Friday night. "I think we all figured it was just going to be like, 'Thataway guys. Great year. Way to battle!' Instead, he dropped that on us. I think everybody was caught off-guard."
And with that, the 67-year-old La Russa said goodbye to baseball and became the first manager to retire immediately after leading his team to a Series title -- the third of his career.
"I think this just feels like it's time to end it," he said Monday. "When I look in the mirror, I know I'd come back for the wrong reasons, and I didn't want to do that."
La Russa said he told general manager John Mozeliak of his decision in August -- before the Cards rallied from a 10 1/2-game deficit in the NL wild-card race to upset Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the playoffs.
They won the thrilling seven-game Series after twice coming within a strike of elimination in Game 6.
"I tip my hat to him. He's had a great career. What a way to go out," Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
The player meeting was short and emotional.
"Some grown men cried," La Russa said, joking that, "I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.
La Russa won the World Series with Oakland in 1989, and St. Louis in 2006 and this year, joining Sparky Anderson as the only manager to win with clubs in both leagues.
During 33 seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1979-86), Oakland (1986-95) and St. Louis (1996-11), La Russa compiled a 2,728-2,365 regular-season record. He trails only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) for wins. And his 70 postseason victories are behind only Joe Torre's 84.
A rare manager with a law degree, La Russa was voted AL Manager of the Year three times, and NL Manager of the Year in 2002. He will be up for consideration for the Hall of Fame in December 2013, at the same time as Torre and Bobby Cox.
"I think you can make a case for him as best of all-time. Absolutely," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who coached for La Russa with the White Sox after managing against him in the minors.
Leyland said La Russa was the "total package" as a manager, obsessing over the lineup card, outfoxing opponents during games and refusing to bend to public opinion.
"Terry Francona used to say 'If you manage for the guys in the seats, pretty soon you'll be sitting with 'em.' Tony never worried about that stuff," Leyland said. "It's a good lesson for managers."
La Russa revolutionized the sport during his time with Oakland, making Dennis Eckersley a one-inning closer. Now, it's common for all 30 big league teams.
"He's been an outstanding leader of many different teams under many different circumstances, and that's hard to do," said New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, La Russa's GM with the Athletics.
La Russa had unusual strategies: He started a game with the pitcher batting eighth 432 times. He was renowned for his use of batter-pitcher matchups in determining which reliever to bring in, but also ridiculed "Moneyball" and its emphasis on statistics over human scouting and observation.
Potential successors include Francona, Jim Riggleman and Joe Maddon, who has one year left on his deal in Tampa Bay but has expressed interest in the Cardinals in the past.
A pal of Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, La Russa was an outspoken supporter of PETA and animal rights, and could be seen during spring training years ago in Phoenix hitting fly balls to one of his dogs.
He was treated at the Mayo Clinic in May for shingles, which left his face swollen and right eye nearly shut. The manager downplayed his health, saying "it had no bearing on my future."
La Russa spoke with little emotion at the news conference with one exception, when he paused to compose himself as he thanked his wife, Elaine, and two daughters for putting up with his absence over much of his long tenure.
The news conference was held at 9 a.m. CDT, giving La Russa time to get to New York for an appearance on Monday's "Late Show with David Letterman" during which he joked a bit with the host.
Letterman asked La Russa how he was able to manage for so long and La Russa replied, "Uh, I don't know. How long have you done this?"
Letterman's reply: "This is my first night."
La Russa willingly shared credit for his longevity, telling Letterman that Dave Duncan "will go down as the greatest pitching coach in the history of the game."
And though he never relocated to St. Louis, La Russa had warm thoughts for the city.
"You don't like to disparage anybody else, David, but it's a unique place 'cause most places, they're with you win or tie, but with them, it's win or lose."
La Russa often appeared tightlipped at his televised postgame news conferences, but behind the scenes he showed his sense of humor and often poked fun at himself by referencing his .199 career big league average in a playing career that consisted of 176 at-bats over 11 years as a second baseman, shortstop and third baseman. The manager was looser than usual and more reflective in October, perhaps doing a personal farewell tour.
La Russa donned a throwback Sam Bradford jersey on the sideline before the Rams' upset of the Saints on Sunday.
"I saw him smile more in the last few months during games than I ever saw in the eight years that I was here before it," Carpenter said. "He was enjoying the moment, but I didn't know it."
La Russa gave a signal of his intentions to Duncan, his former teammate and his pitching coach since they were together on the White Sox. Duncan left the team for several weeks to tend to his ailing wife, and La Russa asked whether Duncan could return in time for the regular-season finale.
Chris Duncan, a son of the pitching coach, who played for La Russa in St. Louis, said he was fairly certain this meant the end.
"Tony wanted his longtime sidekick, the coach who's been with him all the way, with him if it was going to be his last game," Chris Duncan told The Associated Press. "That was important to him."
La Russa said it was definite that he'd never manage again and added he has no desire to be a general manager, a job he described as the hardest in baseball. He would be open to a position in baseball in the future, but probably not with the Cardinals.
"Me personally, I think it's time to step away for a long while," La Russa said
Hired by Bill Veeck for his first major league managing job with the White Sox, La Russa was fired by White Sox GM Ken Harrelson.
"I allowed the general manager to fire him. That was the worst mistake I ever made," Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "It turned about to be great for Tony, though, because he left here at a time we weren't doing well and he went to Oakland right at the time that all of their talent came to fruition."
La Russa managed teams to 12 first-place finishes and six pennants, going to the World Series in three straight years with the A's from 1988-90. He also lost in the Series with the Cardinals in 2004.
"Tony wanted to win in spring training," Leyland said. "He wanted everything done right from the start. It's like he was born to manage."
Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said he didn't try to talk La Russa out of his decision. The manager had taken his time in recent years deciding whether to return to baseball.
"I said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?"' DeWitt said. "I respected his decision. It was never about 'Do you want me to come back?"'
"We're not going to find a Tony La Russa out there, given his career and what he's accomplished, what he's meant to the Cardinals," DeWitt said.
Mozeliak said the new manager will be given autonomy to hire staff. Duncan is under contract for 2012, but will likely also retire.
Mozeliak didn't think La Russa's departure would affect negotiations with Albert Pujols, a free agent for the first time after 11 seasons with the Cardinals.
"He probably understood that Tony is not going to manage forever," Mozeliak said.
Before heading home to California, La Russa said he was happy he didn't know what the future held for him. He even joked about his next occupation.
"Maybe open a book store," he said.