2006 Two Reluctant Enemies

Best of friends, veteran managers Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland overcome various stigmas to win league pennants—and find themselves facing each other in the World Series.

World Series managers Jim Leyland (left) and Tony La Russa engage in a friendly chat before taking on one another in the World Series.

It was Game Two of the 2006 World Series, and Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers was caught red-handed. Or pine-palmed.

In the opposing dugout, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had been alerted moments earlier that TV cameras had zoomed in on Rogers’ palm just below his left thumb and noticed an umber-like smudge which looked suspiciously like pine tar—a substance pitchers were disallowed to use.

The situation had smoking gun written all over it, and when La Russa went out to talk with the umpiring crew before the second inning, chances looked good that Rogers would be served with one of baseball’s most historic ejections.

But instead, La Russa asked the umpires to check Rogers out, have him clean up whatever it was, and move on. No confrontations, no ejections. And that’s exactly what the umpires did.

Outsiders were puzzled how La Russa, a veteran competitor with a knack for playing the bulldog inside the ballpark, would have given Rogers a relative pass—especially during the World Series. Speculation arose that La Russa would play it light to avoid straining a relationship with his best friend: Jim Leyland, the opposing manager in the Tigers’ dugout.

La Russa’s handling of the Rogers issue would serve him well, jeopardizing neither his solid friendship with Leyland nor his chances of steering the Cardinals to their first Fall Classic triumph in 24 years.

To those outside of St. Louis, it seemed odd that Tony La Russa had yet to be fully embraced by the large and loyal Cardinal Nation. Here was a man who was now third on the all-time list of managerial wins. Here was a man who helmed his teams to 12 postseason appearances over 28 years—including six of seven seasons with St. Louis during the 2000s. Here was a man acclaimed enough to be endeared by Hollywood, which began prepping up a film adaptation (never realized) of Three Nights In August, the popular book in which La Russa’s life on and off the job is profiled.

For St. Louisians, struggling to come to terms with La Russa may have stemmed from the fact that he followed two popular Cardinals figures in Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre as manager. Or that he relegated the beloved Ozzie Smith to the bench. Or that he still called California his home. Or perhaps it came from an intense, humorless disposition that, to observers from the edge, gave him that look of someone in desperate need of the nearest outhouse. But La Russa’s positives—his winning ways, his thorough inside-and-out knowledge of the game, his absolute loyalty to his players—were enough to reduce the other issues to sidebar status at best.

Such trivial negatives seemed moot as the Cardinals got off to a hot start in 2006. La Russa, with pitching coach and trusty lieutenant Dave Duncan at his side, was getting soaring results from a starting rotation of Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. Albert Pujols, arguably the game’s most feared hitter, was rocking and socking baseballs out of the park to the tune of 25 homers and 64 RBIs by the end of May. There was not an empty seat to be found at the Cardinals’ brand new, retro version of Busch Stadium. Life was good.

In 11 dominating seasons in a St. Louis uniform, Albert Pujols was never better than in 2006—setting career highs with 49 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .671 slugging percentage.

On June 23, the Cardinals, four games atop the National League’s Central Division, flew into Detroit for the start of a three-game interleague series with the Tigers. For one of the rare times since he began managing, La Russa would be matching wits against his good pal, Jim Leyland.

The friendship between La Russa and Leyland went back to 1982, when La Russa—in his fourth year managing the Chicago White Sox—brought Leyland into his coaching staff. Leyland seemed chiseled from the same clay as La Russa: No-nonsense, loyal and knowledgeable on the subject of baseball. Eventually the two parted ways on the field—La Russa to Oakland, Leyland to Pittsburgh—but their bond to one another remained strong, always calling one another, always talking baseball, often in the middle of the night.

Like La Russa, Leyland had something to prove as well in 2006. But whereas La Russa was trying to meet sky-high expectations to win over the hearts and souls of Cardinals fans, Leyland was simply trying to prove he had enough heart and soul left to manage, period.

After his successes a decade earlier with a low-budget roster in Pittsburgh—followed by a world championship with Florida, in 1997—the fire seemed to fizzle out in Leyland’s belly. He grudgingly presided over a hopeless 1998 Marlins team gutted out by a fire sale, then fled to Colorado—where he had an unremarkable one-year tenure dogged, he would later admit, by a lack of enthusiasm. It appeared that Leyland was fading out of baseball.

Following the disaster of Colorado, Leyland hooked back up with La Russa and served as a Cardinals scout for six years. During this time, Leyland rediscovered the urge to manage again. After 2005, he lobbied several teams who had openings at the helm, but after his ennui of the late 1990s, they were mostly skeptical—except one.

It had to be wondered who needed the other more: The dying-to-manage-again Leyland, or the Detroit Tigers. A storied franchise, the Tigers had long since fallen on hard times. They hadn’t finished above .500 in 12 years, became infamous for losing 119 games in 2003 and—despite a nice new downtown ballpark—were so financially beat up by 2005, rumors arose that the team was struggling to meet payroll.

Leyland’s arrival in Detroit, a homecomingLeyland spent the first 17 years of his pro baseball career in the Tigers organization—six as an unsuccessful catcher who never made it to the majors, 11 as a minor league manager. of sorts, was considered a calculated risk. Could Leyland rekindle the fire within him? And even if he did, would it be enough to lift a franchise so ensconced in failure for over a decade?

Yes and yes.

A recharged Leyland scorched away the cobwebs of doubt in the Tigers clubhouse, instilling new life with well-timed fury. Ivan Rodriguez, the veteran All-Star catcher with a reputation for testing managers, found this out the hard way when he challenged Leyland in the season’s first few weeks—and lost badly, as Barry Bonds had 15 years earlier when he tried to push Leyland in Pittsburgh. The rest of the team felt Leyland’s wrath in an angry, closed-door postgame tirade following a 10-2 loss to Cleveland that dropped the Tigers to 7-6. That record may have gone over well with Tigers players who had become accustomed to losing, but Leyland growled that they could be much better.

Much better the Tigers would become: They won 28 of their next 36 games. The secret was out, even for those within the Detroit clubhouse to discover: The Tigers were for real.

When Tony La Russa and the Cardinals came to Detroit in late June, he discovered just how real Leyland’s Tigers were; St. Louis was swept in three games. By then, being embarrassed by his best friend’s ballclub was the least of La Russa’s problems.

After their fast start, the Cardinals endured wave after wave of misfortune that threatened to derail their season. Their three-game sweep at Detroit was just part of an eight-game losing snap, one of many extended dips throughout the summer. An unraveling roster was part of the problem; Mark Mulder’s earned run average ballooned to 7.14 before he realized his rotator cuff had torn, while Jason Marquis, healthy so far as the doctors could see, lost ten games after the All-Star break and finished the season with a 6.02 ERAMarquis’ reliability nosedived to the point that he wasn’t included on the Cardinals postseason roster.. Injuries and inconsistency plagued closer Jason Isringhausen (shut down with a bad hip in September) and much of Albert Pujols’ supporting cast, including sluggers Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and scrappy shortstop David Eckstein.

After overcoming all of the above, and with the NL Central title practically in the bag, the Cardinals—remembered for benefiting from the collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies—nearly lost it in much the same way. Leading by seven games with 13 to play, St. Louis reeled off another losing streak of seven and, combined with a nine-game win streak by the defending NL champ Houston Astros (buoyed by the midseason return of Roger Clemens, ending his latest retirement) had its lead shredded to a mere half game. But behind La Russa, the Cardinals persevered in the season’s final weekend and held the slim lead to capture the division.

Jim Leyland had it no easier in steering the Tigers through second-half difficulties in Detroit. After peaking impressively at 76-36, the Tigers began to suffer after an apparent season-ending shoulder injury to second baseman Placido Polanco—hardly a statistical powerhouse of a player, but highly valued in his teammates’ eyes as the glue of the team.

Without Polanco, the Tigers were 14-21. And then, out of nowhere, Polanco sprang up and said he was ready to play again, giving Detroit an emotional lift—if nothing else. Fighting it out in an extremely tough AL Central against the defending world champion White Sox and upstart Minnesota Twins, the Tigers struggled even with Polanco back, finishing the year with five straight losses—including three at home to lowly Kansas City—costing them the divisional titleThe Twins won the AL Central over the Tigers by a single game; the White Sox, despite 90 wins, missed the postseason. before salvaging the wild card spot.

Leyland was able to forge outstanding efforts from rookies and reclamation projects alike. From the rookies, he got a 17-9 record and 3.63 ERA from powerful right-hander Justin Verlander and a 1.94 ERA from middle reliever Joel Zumaya, who reportedly threw the majors’ fastest pitch ever at 103 MPH; from the reclamation well, Leyland got 17 more wins from 41-year-old Kenny Rogers, who nobody else wanted a year after his pariah-like actions with the press in Texas, and Magglio Ordonez, a once-feared slugger who appeared permanently broken down from injuries until suddenly revived in 2006 with a .298 average, 24 homers and 104 RBIs.

Opening the postseason opposite the almighty New York Yankees, Detroit lost the first game but then clamped down on the high-powered Bronx Bombers—holding them scoreless for 20 straight inningsIt was the longest stretch without a run for the Yankees all season. over parts or whole of the next three games, all Tigers wins, to hand the Yankees a first-round playoff exit for the second straight season. Detroit then guaranteed its first World Series appearance in 22 years—and Leyland’s second of his managerial career—when it swept the Oakland A’s in the ALCS, adding a dramatic touch in the pennant clincher when Ordonez launched a three-run, ninth-inning homer to break a 3-3 tie in front of the hometown fans at Comerica Park.

Having survived the downside of his yo-yo regular season, Tony La Russa righted the Cardinals’ ship in time for the first round of the NL playoffs by taking care of San Diego, winners again of a weak NL West, for the second straight year. But the true test in the NLCS still lay ahead: Taking on the 97-65 New York Mets, holders of, easily, the league’s best record.

To the Mets—who easily dispensed of the wild card-winning Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS—the Cardinals looked no more imposing in what was supposed to be a continued cakewalk to the World Series. Under manager Willie Randolph, the Mets featured an awesome bat attack led by veterans Carlos Beltran (41 homers, 116 RBIs), Carlos Delgado (38, 114), and young infielders David Wright (26, 116) and Jose Reyes (.300 batting average, 122 runs scored, 17 triples, 19 homers and 64 steals). But by season’s end, an epidemic of bad calves infected the pitching rotation. One such injury ended the year for staff ace Pedro Martinez in September, and on the eve of the playoffs, veteran hurler Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez—who pitched well after a horrendous start with Arizona—was done for 2006 when he hurt his calf as a result of some simple jogging in the outfield.

The Mets’ mound injuries leveled the playing field for La Russa’s Cardinals, a state of affairs that held literally true as the two teams stayed knotted all the way through to the ninth inning of Game Seven in New York. That’s when two unlikely heroes tipped the balance for St. Louis. Catcher Yadier Molina, whose .216 batting average was the lowest among NL players with at least 400 at-bats, slammed a two-run home run to unlock a 1-1 tie, and in the bottom half of the inning, rookie Adam WainwrightWainwright, a future ace starter, would save four games and toss 9 2/3 shutout innings during the 2006 postseason.—who was forced to inherit the closer role one month earlier after Jason Isringhausen’s injury—sweated out a bases-loaded jam to finish the 3-1 triumph and send the Cardinals on to the World Series.

For best friends Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland, the golden chance to add another World Series title to their resume was at hand. But the uncomfortable part lay in the fact that one would have to beat the other to achieve the goal. All of the tireless, late-night phone conversations between the two came to a halt as Game One beckoned between the Cardinals and Tigers. At this pinnacle, performing head-on, there was a mutual understanding between the two that competition trumped not necessarily friendship, but certainly strategic gossip.

On the field, La Russa would discover that strategy itself would be trumped by fortuity, particularly in regards to the fate of the opposing pitching staffs. For Game One, La Russa chose to go with another rookie, Anthony Reyes, who pitched into the ninth inning for the first time in his big league career and helped the Cardinals start on top with an easy 7-2 win at Detroit. For Games Two and Five, La Russa crossed his fingers and put his trust into veteran Jeff Weaver, an early-season shipwreck in AnaheimWeaver was released by the Angels—and his roster spot assumed by younger brother Jered, who won his first nine decisions to christen in a terrific career. before the Cardinals grabbed him off waivers and worked on his mechanics. The repairs were a success; Weaver finished the postseason with a 2.43 ERA and earned the victory in the Game Five, 4-2 win that iced the Series for St. Louis.

No World Series-winning team has had a worse regular season record than the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who top the below list of ballclubs who managed to take it all despite being outperformed during the year by more than a few other teams. Note that all of these winners played after 1969, when divisional play and multiple rounds of playoffs became the norm—allowing teams with inferior records to sneak into the postseason.

Jim Leyland watched in frustration as his own pitchers, while throwing well to the plate, threw wildly everywhere else. Detroit pitchers committed an error in each game, resulting in seven unearned runs; the last two miscues, in the Series’ last two games, erased Tiger leads that were never regained. Even the Tigers’ lone Series victory was nearly lost to glove botchery; after Kenny RogersRogers became the first pitcher since Christy Mathewson, 101 years earlier, to not allow a run in three starts over one postseason. pitched eight shutout innings once he cleaned off whatever substance was on his throwing hand, closer Todd Jones muffed a grounder in the ninth that intensified a Cardinals rally that ended with one run in and the bases left loaded.

In the end, the 2006 campaign ended complacently for the two old friends. In finally winning it all at St. Louis—and becoming the second manager, after Sparky Anderson, to manage both an AL and NL team to a world title—La Russa at long last received wholehearted endearment from Cardinals fans. Leyland, despite defeat in the World Series, had proved not only his rejuvenated passion to manage but the success that it brought.

La Russa and Leyland continued their everlasting friendship after a week as foes, overcoming the discomfort of Kenny Rogers’ pine-toned palm that Rogers claimed as dirt and La Russa, tersely without emotion, claimed to be anything but. For La Russa and Leyland, two old warriors not known for their penchant to smile, “Smudgegate” as it would be known certainly had to bring some laughter out of the two once the phone calls resumed.

2007 baseball historyForward to 2007: Bow if You Will, Spit if You Wish Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's fabled career home run mark, but few people are happy about it.

2005 baseball historyBack to 2005: At the End of the Primrose Path After years of looking the other way, baseball is publicaly forced to confront its dirty steroid laundry.

2000 baseball historyThe 2000s Page: Driven Deep to Disgrace The new century gives Major League Baseball a decidedly more international flavor with a healthy rise in foreign-born talent—but a disturbing pall is cast over the sport as one megastar after another is exposed for using steroids.

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2006 Standings

National League East
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
Florida Marlins
Washington Nationals
National League Central
St. Louis Cardinals
Houston Astros
Cincinnati Reds
Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs
National League West
San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers (w)
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
American League East
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Boston Red Sox
Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
American League Central
Minnesota Twins
Detroit Tigers (w)
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
American League West
Oakland A's
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Texas Rangers
Seattle Mariners

2006 Postseason Results
NLDS St. Louis defeated San Diego, 3-1.
NLDS New York defeated Los Angeles, 3-0.
ALDS Detroit defeated New York, 3-1.
ALDS Oakland defeated Minnesota, 3-0.
NLCS St. Louis defeated New York, 4-3.
ALCS Detroit defeated Oakland, 4-0.
World Series St. Louis (NL) defeated Detroit (AL), 4-1.

It Happened in 2006

The World Cup of Baseball...Sort of
As major league teams open up spring training, the first World Baseball Classic is held in the United States. The favored Americans, featuring a less than ideal roster after a number of All-Star-caliber players developed general ennui about the event, are less then impressive, beating eventual champion Japan (on a disputed call) but also losing out to Canada, Korea and Mexico in failing to advance to the third and final round. Japan beats Cuba in the finale, 10-6, on March 20 before a sellout crowd at San Diego’s Petco Park. Overall, attendance is solid for the tournament and reviews are moderately favorable.

The Death of Cory Lidle
A small plane crashes into a high-rise apartment building in Upper Manhattan on October 11, sparking fears of another terrorist attack from the skies above New York City. It is quickly and shockingly learned, however, that the pilot of the plane is 34-year-old New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, who perishes in the crash with a flight instructor. It is generally believed that neither person was familiar enough with Lidle’s new plane, a Cirrus SR20. No one else is hurt in the accident.

The Mini-Me Marlins
Despite an obscenely small team payroll of $15 million surpassed individually by 12 players elsewhere in the majors, the rookie-laden Florida Marlins become a cult wonder with an overachieving performance highlighted by numerous milestones. The Marlins are the first major league team to reach .500 after earlier being 20 games below the mark; are in playoff contention in the season’s final week; and are the first team to field three rookies with 20 homers and four with ten or more wins. One of those pitchers, Anibal Sanchez, throws the majors’ only no-hitter of the season on September 6 against Arizona. Besides Sanchez, the Marlins rookie parade includes future All-Stars Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson.

The Marlins finish 78-84 behind first-year pilot Joe Girardi, who is rewarded with NL Manager of the Year honors—and a boot out of town from team owner Jeffrey Loria, with whom Girardi feuded for much of the season.

Interleague Imbalance
After a decade of virtual 50/50 success split between the two leagues in interleague competition, the 2006 season signals a definite TKO in favor of the American League, which posts a 154-98 record against the National League. Only two NL teams, Colorado (11-4) and San Francisco (8-7), achieve winning marks against the AL, while the top three AL Central teams—Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago—fatten up with a combined 45-9 record against NL opponents. Even AL lowlifes Tampa Bay (11-7) and Kansas City (10-8), both of which will lose 100 games on the season, enjoy winning records against the Senior Circuit. For the AL, it’s the third straight year in a streak that continues to this day in which it’s won more than lost against the NL.

For Whom the Hell’s Bells Toll
On back-to-back nights, September 23-24, San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman shuts the door on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the ninth inning to preserve 2-1 victories to at first tie, then break, the all-time career saves record with 479. Showing that he’s not fading out at age 38, Hoffman will finish the year with 46 saves to lead the NL for the second time in his 14-year career, virtually all of which has been spent with the Padres. Mariano Rivera will eventually surpass Hoffman in the record book.

Haven’t We Read This One Before?
Roger Clemens comes out of retirement—again—halfway through the 2006 season as he rejoins the Houston Astros. The 44-year-old Clemens pitches as if still in his prime, producing a 2.30 earned run average—a figure that would easily lead the NL if he pitched enough innings to qualify—but general lack of support by his Astros teammates leaves his final record at only 7-6. Clemens ends the year once more in a state of semi-retirement, but will un-retire one last time in 2007 for the New York Yankees before hanging up the cleats for good.

Last of the Great Negro Leaguers
It’s a year in which Negro League legend and baseball ambassador Buck O’Neil is in the news often—mostly for the wrong reasons. In the spring, O’Neil is snubbed by Veterans Committee voters for the Hall of Fame, igniting a storm of protest and the launching of a tireless public relations campaign to lobby O’Neil for future votes. Such politics take a ridiculous turn when O’Neil, 94, is put in uniform and placed in a minor league game during the summer as a pinch hitter for a publicity stunt. O’Neil will later be confined to a hospital bed suffering from exhaustion and, on October 7, passes away.

Kirby Puckett, 1960-2006
Former Minnesota Twins star and Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett dies at the age of 45 on March 7, a day after he had suffered a stroke in Phoenix. Puckett’s passing caps a turbulent decade following a stellar, highly popular career that abruptly ended due to glaucoma; Puckett later was charged with assault on a woman at a bar (he was cleared), suffered through an ugly public divorce, and his weight had ballooned to over 300 pounds.

Franco is Still Not Dead and Playing for the Mets
Playing past his 48th birthday at the end of the season, Julio Franco becomes the oldest position player in major league history (excusing promotional stunts by Jim O’Rourke and Minnie Minoso). Playing mostly off the bench for the New York Mets, Franco hits .273 with a pair of home runs and six steals in seven attempts; he’ll play one more year and then retire at age 49.

Game of the Year
The Los Angeles Dodgers, fighting it out with San Diego for the NL West title on September 18 at Dodger Stadium, enter the bottom of the ninth inning trailing the Padres, 9-5. The first four Dodgers batters—Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin and Marlon Anderson—all hit solo home runs to tie the game, the first time in 42 years four consecutive homers have been hit. After the Padres rebound with a run in the top of the tenth, the Dodgers counter in the bottom of the extra frame with a walk to Kenny Lofton—and then a two-run shot by Nomar Garciaparra to win it, 11-10.

Model of Consistency
With a 15-7 record for the Yankees, Mike Mussina becomes the first player in history to win ten or more games over 15 straight seasons. Somewhat oddly, the 37-year-old hurler has no 20-win seasons to his credit during this stretch, getting as close as 19 in the strike-shortened (by 18 games) 1995 campaign. (Mussina will finally reach 20 in 2008, his final season.)

Chipper’s Got His Extra-Base Jones Going
Chipper Jones ties a 79-year-old mark when he knocks out an extra base hit in 14 consecutive games for the Atlanta Braves, June 26-July 16. Jones is hardly eking them out during this period; he bats .544 and has a 1.088 slugging percentage. Ironically, the streak comes to an end on July 17 when he collects three hits—all singles—while the rest of his Braves teammates rap out eight extra base hits among 20 total hits in a 15-3 rout at St. Louis.

Satan Wears Dodger Blue
On June 6, 2006 (6-6-06), the Dodgers score six runs on six hits in the sixth inning of an 8-5 win over the Mets in Los Angeles.

New Ballparks

New Busch Stadium, St. Louis In an era where some ballparks have their corporately-sponsored names changed every so often, the opposite runs true in St. Louis, where the Cardinals began play in their third venue over the last 50 years—all three with the same name, Busch Stadium. Named after the family that once ran the team—and still runs Anheuser-Busch, the Cardinals’ prime sponsor—New Busch Stadium is a baseball-only facility whose location partially overlaps that of its torn-down successor, the enclosed, multi-purposed bowl that housed the Cardinals for 40 years.

New Busch subtly retains architectural elements of both the former Busch and the old, old Busch—the ballpark formerly known as Sportsman’s Park—and has a glorious view of downtown St. Louis, including the famed Gateway Arch. A mixed-use development named Ballpark Village, part of the overall ballpark project that allowed public funds to be used for its construction, sits adjacent to New Busch. The Cardinals sold out New Busch for its entire inaugural campaign, which ended with a World Series title—the first time a major league team won a championship playing in a brand new facility since the Yankees won it all during their first year at Yankee Stadium in 1923.

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