Tony LaRussa, one of the most enigmatic figures in baseball history, retired today as St. Louis Cardinals manager. LaRussa chose to go out on top, announcing his retirement less than 24 hours after the Cardinals celebrated their 11th World Series title.
LaRussa stepped down just 72 wins shy of John McGraw for second place on the all-time leaderboard.
Cardinals fans have always been divided on their opinions of him, but most will remember LaRussa as a great clubhouse manager who sometimes perplexed with his on-field decisions.
As the Cardinals prepare to defend their title, they'll need to find a new manager to occupy the spot in the dugout that LaRussa made so famous over the past 15 years.
There will be no shortage of applicants. Few situations are better than that in St. Louis, where a championship team offers both a chance to win and low scrutiny from the local media. This could be the most sought-after managerial spot ever.
Here are a few of the best candidates, alphabetically.
Francona is an interesting candidate. He managed the Boston Red Sox from 2004-2011, winning a World Series in his first year there and adding another in 2007. However, after the late season collapse that saw the Red Sox blow a nine-game September lead, Francona chose to step down as Boston manager.
St. Louis would be an interesting spot for Francona. He previously managed in the National League with the Philadelphia Phillies, and his former boss, Theo Epstein, recently joined the Cubs. Francona-Epstein could fuel the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry that has seen waning interest in the past few years.
Joe Maddon may be the best manager in baseball. What he has done with the Rays is simply amazing.
Cardinals fans might drool over the idea of him heading the St. Louis staff. The feeling might be mutual.
St. Louis payed an average of $1.29 million more per win than Maddon's Rays, playing in the toughest division in baseball, did in 2011.
Maddon has one more year left on his contract with Tampa Bay, and will make a base salary of $1.4 million dollars in 2012. The Cardinals could afford to double that value and still save money on the manager position.
Maddon has been a Cardinals fan since age 10.
"My dad took me with my Uncle Pete and Hank Toth to a Yankees-White Sox game," Maddon says. "The Yankees won 3-0, Whitey Ford pitched, Johnny Blanchard hit a home run, we exited out the center field gate by the monuments and when we walked outside my dad asked if I wanted a hat.
"I said yes, and I chose the St. Louis baseball Cardinals hat. That's the year I became a Cardinals fan."
Maddon is certainly the best choice for the job, and it would be no surprise to seem him as the next manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Chris Maloney has been the manager at Class AAA Memphis for the last six years and is one of a few in-house candidates the Cardinals could choose from.
He has no experience at the big-league level, but in 18 seasons as a minor-league manager, his teams have gone 1,191-1,121 (.515) with two league championships — including the 2009 PCL playoff title with Memphis. His teams have developed future Cardinals Skip Schumaker, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, and David Freese.
Many of the players are already familiar with Maloney from their time in Memphis, and he could be the next choice to manage at the big-league level.
If the Cardinals choose to stay in house, third base coach Jose Oquendo would be the obvious choice. Oquendo has been interviewed for managerial openings for the Mets, Mariners, and Padres in the past. He will likely get a shot to manage in the major leagues at some point.
Oquendo's biggest asset may be his relationships with Cardinals veterans Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Oquendo managed Molina previously on the Puerto Rican national team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Oquendo is the most experienced in-house option for St. Louis, and he will likely get an interview with the club.
Terry Pendleton, who played for the Cardinals from 1984-90, has served as hitting coach and third-base coach for the Braves. His name has been tossed around in many conversations in the past few years, and could be a prime candidate for the St. Louis job.
It could be seen as an ironic twist of fate if Pendleton left the Braves, whose late-season collapse allowed the Cardinals to get LaRussa his final championship, for the very team that kept them out of the playoffs.
Valentine hasn't managed in almost a decade but will probably very high on the list of possible replacements for LaRussa. He's spent the last few years at ESPN as an analyst, covering the Cardinals' run to the Commissioner's Trophy this season.
His management style is similar to that of LaRussa. He relies on his bullpen and is sometimes very stubborn.
As a 15-year manager in the big leagues, Valentine has gone 1,117-1,072 (.510) while winning one National League pennant in 2000 with the Mets. He was also very successful managing professionally in Japan, winning a league title.
Ron "Pop" Warner, 39, might be minor league baseball's best-kept secret.
Warner has been the manager of the Springfield Cardinals since 2006, and was the Palm Beach Cardinals manager for two seasons before that.
In his first season as a professional manager, Warner led the Single-A Cardinals to the team’s first ever playoff and Championship series appearance.
In 2008, Warner finished the season at Springfield with 78 wins, which is still a franchise record. He’s young, and if management wants to go with a younger, newer presence, he better be at the top of the list.
Warner's accumulated a combined record of 438-387 (.531).
With the Cardinals attempting to make the seamless transition from veteran leadership to youth movement, Warner, just 39, could be the best option.
He’s a no-nonsense manager emphasizes consistency and fundamentals. Many of his former players are now in the majors. One day soon, he will be, too.