It's rare to see Tony La Russa overburdened. But there he was one recent morning in Walnut Creek, Calif., trying to make it from his SUV to the front door of the Animal Rescue Foundation without dropping a stack of papers and boxes tucked under his chin.
When an acquaintance happened along to relieve him of one of the boxes, La Russa, feigning infirmity, handed him the second as well.
"I'm a retiree," he cracked.
It's difficult to believe La Russa has left the dugout. Even more difficult to believe is the manner in which he spent the final 10 weeks of his 32-year managerial career.
When they woke up Aug. 25, his St. Louis Cardinals were 10 games behind in the National League Central. With five games left, they were three games out in the wild card. They clinched a postseason spot on the season's final day. They survived two win-or-go-home games to beat Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. They were a strike away from elimination -- twice -- in Game 6 of the World Series before beating Texas, 10-9, in 11 epic innings. The following day they won the 11th world championship in team history. It was La Russa's third as a manager.
"Unbelievable," he said.
That's what the casual fan was thinking. But the casual fan didn't know what La Russa knew: This was his last hurrah. Given that, what must have been going through his head during the Cardinals' miraculous run?
To understand that, he said, you have to rewind to midseason. That's when his predominant thought was: This isn't as easy as it used to be.
It was late June/early July when La Russa finalized his decision to retire at season's end. While he said there were eight or nine factors involved, chief among them was the increasing difficulty of practicing what he had always preached to his players -- giving maximum effort, whatever that may be on any given day. He calls it reaching level 10.
"If you preach it, that's what you've got to do" he said. "If you don't get there, then you're a fraud."
Having made the decision to retire, he took it for a test drive.
"One of the strategies I was taught," he said, "if you have some alternatives, just pick one and wear it for two days or a week. I mean really, it's just like simulating it."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were wearing the look of a team that could finish with a losing record. After the Cardinals were swept by the Dodgers on Aug. 22-24, leaving them 67-63, La Russa plotted his pitching rotation for the final 32 games. "We've got a hell of a chance to finish under .500," he recalls thinking. And then:
"It got better," La Russa said. "Hey, we're going to be a .500 team. We're in contention. Son of a (gun), we have a shot. Let's get in."
Against that backdrop, with one month left in the season, La Russa informed club owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak of his intention to retire. But he insisted on withholding an announcement for as long as the games mattered. That was occasionally a day-to-day proposition. When things looked iffy, DeWitt and/or Mozeliak would show up in La Russa's office to talk about going public with his plans.
"We had this discussion and kept postponing it," La Russa, 67, said.
So even before the Cardinals learned they had won the wild card outright on the season's final day, this story was beginning to defy gravity. The comeback against Philadelphia only added to the intrigue. Nothing could have prepared La Russa, a man who had seen it all 32 times, for Game 6 of the World Series.
"I've heard this so many times about, you looked more relaxed, like you were enjoying it more." La Russa said. "I don't know how to judge that. To me, October's always been the most relaxed and the most that I enjoy the managing part. That immediacy is just fun."
It doesn't get more immediate than being one pitch away from losing the World Series. Entering the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6, St. Louis trailed the Rangers 3 games to 2, and 7-5.
"I was sitting there thinking, this is going to be over here in a minute, in three outs," La Russa said. So he explained to his players how they were to conduct themselves in defeat.
"In the bottom of the ninth inning, I alerted the bullpen," he said. "And I told our coaches and some of the veteran players. I said, 'If this doesn't work, we need to step out of the dugout and thank our fans.' I actually called the bullpen and had that conversation."
The Cardinals' David Freese put the stoicism on ice with a two-run triple on a 1-2 pitch, tying the game 7-7. But the Rangers' Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer in the top of the 10th. So in the bottom of the inning: "I call the bullpen," La Russa said. "'We're going to have to do this again.' That's how impending it was. It was right there."
Lance Berkman's tying two-out, two-strike single gave the Cardinals yet another life. Freese's solo homer in the bottom of the 11th put the cherry on top of an instant classic.
It's doubtful the Rangers got any sleep. La Russa didn't get much himself.
"There's two kinds of non-sleep," he said. "You lost a tough game, and you're beating yourself up. And there's the other one where you're so excited you really don't want to go to sleep. So I'd say (I got) three or four hours sleep. But that's good non-sleep."
He and his coaches advised the players to put Game 6 in a box. There likely was nothing Rangers manager Ron Washington could have told his players.
"I'm going to bet there wasn't any (Texas) player that wasn't 100 percent confident they were getting three outs and the (ninth) inning was over," La Russa said. "That's a pretty big place to come back from the next day."
Too big. Chris Carpenter, pitching on short rest, won his third clincher in 30 days and the Cardinals were champions.
"It's like a fairy tale," La Russa said. "I've had people coming up to me. I've never had a response like this."
La Russa isn't sure what comes next, but he would like to stay in baseball.
"I said I was retiring from the dugout," he said. "But I feel great. I like responsibility. I've got plenty of energy. I want to do something. Fifty years in baseball is 50 years. That's what I know. So, you either do something with a team. Or MLB has talked about a role with them.
"It's a little overwhelming at times trying to figure out how it's all going to fall in place."
That's the flip side of living a fairy tale -- the encore can be a witch.