La Russa managing perfect send-off by leading NL in All-Star Game

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Constructing an All-Star Game lineup that balances a high participation rate with a strong competitive spirit seems, at times, to be a challenge on par with deciphering Da Vinci's codes or isolating the Higgs boson particle.

Who better, then, to pour through an endless array of lineup machinations than the third-winningest manager in baseball history, one who has a reputation for full roster inclusion and who is free of the daily distraction of running a major league ballclub.

"I do think it is fun to play around with the combinations," National League manager Tony La Russa said. "I've had more time on my hands than Ron [Washington] has."

The second part was added with a chuckle, in recognition that La Russa is retired and Washington remains the skipper of the Rangers. The two were dugout combatants in last fall's epic seven-game World Series and, even though La Russa stepped down as Cardinals manager three days after winning the championship, the honor of managing the All-Star Game was still his.

"I was actually excited, thrilled, honored to be asked," he said. "It's one of the neatest baseball experiences you can have because you have the best baseball players in the world on both sides. As soon as I was asked, I said 'yes' before the question was finished."

In becoming only the second retired manager to lead an All-Star team -- the first was Hall of Famer John McGraw in the inaugural Midsummer Classic in 1933 -- La Russa has forged an unusual final hurrah to cap his own likely Hall of Fame career. He wasn't just successful but revolutionary.

La Russa won 2,728 games in 33 seasons with the White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals, winning six league pennants and three World Series titles while popularizing matchup-based bullpen usage with record-breaking numbers of pitching changes. He then wrote a storybook ending to his career by retiring after St. Louis won the 2011 World Series, becoming the first manager in history to go out on top.

Now he is back for one last game, more a victory lap than any meaningful return to the dugout as an All-Star Game win or loss would certainly not change his legacy in any appreciable way. The game very much counts -- for the 10th straight year, World Series homefield advantage will be awarded to the winning league -- and a competitor like La Russa surely wants to deliver that prize to the NL even if he personally has nothing invested in the outcome.

So even though he says playing everybody is "the ideal thing," leave it to La Russa to deploy his men in the most premeditated and strategic way possible.

When asked on Thursday whether Mets starter R.A. Dickey -- the league leader or co-leader in wins, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts and WHIP -- would be his starting pitcher, La Russa said he was in the mix but raised concerns over who would catch the knuckleballer, seemingly implying that he might save Dickey to be caught by a backup catcher, rather than starter Buster Posey.

"We're talking about the best way to just win the game with the personnel and how we use Dickey will be part of that," La Russa said.

"This isn't golf or tennis," he added. "This is a team, and each All-Star, if you put their hand on the baseball bible, they'd say, 'Hey, use me however you think will win the game,' because each team wants to win the game. In the end, as a manager or coach, you have to keep your heart pure, and do your best as a manager or a coach."

But also leave it to La Russa to rankle some feathers, too. In filling out his All-Star roster, he left off a pair of Reds, second baseman Brandon Phillips and starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, who -- coincidentally, or maybe not -- played key roles in a brawl between the Reds and La Russa's Cardinals two years ago. Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker voiced his frustration, telling reporters, "A snub like that looks bad."

La Russa dismissed the complaint, saying he had other reasons for his choices. It's worth noting that of the nine players he had the authority to select to the NL squad, he chose a different Red (outfielder Jay Bruce), did not pick any second basemen and his three starting pitcher choices were either well-known stars (the Phillies' Cole Hamels and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw) or a team's only selection (the Diamondbacks' Wade Miley).

Being an All-Star manager is a thankless job. There are hard roster decisions to be made beforehand and even harder lineup decisions to be made in the thick of the game, based on inning, situation, pitch count requests from other managers and the threat of extra innings. The starting lineup -- even when asking a few elite players to bat at the bottom of the order -- is the comparatively easy part.

"You can't write a bad lineup," La Russa said. "These guys are all stars."

The focus of every All-Star Game is rightfully on the players, with the managers only snagging headlines for perceived slights. That makes this a curious final tour of duty for La Russa, who deserves better than to be the object of acrimony when he puts on a uniform for the last time.

And there is symmetry in the game's location of Kansas City. La Russa made his playing debut as an 18-year-old with the Athletics in 1963. He was primarily a pinch-runner but had his first plate appearances at the now-defunct K.C. Municipal Stadium. Now he'll end his major league career back in the city where it started.

"That definitely got my attention," he said. "The coincidence of it is kind of hard to believe, though I think the less said about my playing career, the better.

"The fact that it started there and is ending there definitely had a number of friends and family comment. That's how you tie the bow. It's a great coincidence and I'm trying to enjoy it."