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La Russa Returns to Role of Villain

By C. Trent Rosecrans · July 3rd, 2012 · Sports

It took all the way until the first day of July, nearly a week from the All-Star break, to figure out just what was off about this baseball season. We’ve had plenty of exciting games, the Reds have spent their fair share of time in first place and still there was something missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until the National League All-Star rosters were announced.

Tony La Russa, we missed you.

Oh, no, we didn’t miss your umpteen trips to the mound for pitching changes, your smug postgame news conferences or your sanctimonious and often hypocritical adherence to unwritten rules that only you know. No, we missed it all. We missed having a villain. From your ’70s coiffure to your demeaning tones, we missed it all. And just as we forgot about you, like a phoenix from the ashes, you reminded us once again why we scoff at your coiffure and mock your “genius.” Managing the National League All-Star team gave the longtime Reds nemesis one more shot at his old rivals when La Russa omitted Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips. You might remember, Cueto and Phillips were two of the principles in the 2010 brawl between the Reds and La Russa’s Cardinals, and as the manager of last year’s National League champions, it is La Russa’s prerogative to pick a number of the reserves to the squad this year.

So, did La Russa pass over our two local heroes on purpose? It sure smells that way, even if La Russa denied it. Dusty Baker, as he is wont to do, protected his players and put the seed of conspiracy in the media air after the rosters were announced, while La Russa shot back feigns of indignation as an assault on his character.

Before passing judgment, let’s just say there are those other than La Russa who can shoulder some blame. 

Regarding Phillips, some blame lies with the fans who voted Dan Uggla as the starter over last year’s Gold Glove-Silver Slugger winner despite the Braves’ second baseman’s .232 batting average (though it should be noted that Uggla had an OPS slightly higher than Phillips following Sunday’s games, although the defensive difference is night and day).

Phillips can also blame his peers in the National League, who voted for Houston’s Jose Altuve instead of him. Much of this could be that Phillips rubs some people the wrong way with his celebrations after every move on the field and general demeanor. The way Phillips goes about his business endears him to the home fans — and rightfully so — but does make him not as popular outside the Cincinnati viewing area.

Like Phillips, Cueto was left off by his peers, who selected Cardinals starter Lance Lynn to the game over Cueto. The Reds’ right-hander has the big leagues’ best ERA over the last two seasons and at the time of the selection he was fifth in the NL with a 2.26 ERA.

In the end, because of the obligation to pick an All-Star from every team, among other restrictions, La Russa had just five true picks of his own, with one going to Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. The other four were Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond and two Phillies (if we assume catcher Carlos Ruiz was the team’s mandated representative, because he was a no-doubt pick) closer Jonathan Papelbon and left-hander Cole Hamels. For La Russa, it was Desmond over Phillips and Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young winner, and Hamels over Cueto.

While not picking Phillips may not have been right, his offensive numbers haven’t differentiated him enough from other second basemen (Arizona’s Aaron Hill could be considered a snub at the spot as well), so there is a reasonable case for leaving him off the roster. There’s also a reasonable argument when comparing Cueto to Kershaw and Hamels — until La Russa opened his mouth.

For a guy with a law degree, La Russa doesn’t seem familiar with the Fifth Amendment. While defending himself, La Russa noted Cueto and the Brewers’ Zack Greinke would have made the team if they weren’t scheduled to start the Sunday before the All-Star Game. There are two things wrong with this defense: 1. Greinke isn’t pitching on Sunday. 2. The rule against pitchers who start on the Sunday before the game being ineligible to pitch in the game on the following Tuesday has been changed. Now pitchers who start on Sunday are allowed to pitch a maximum of one inning in the All-Star Game.

In the end, there are reasons why Phillips and Cueto won’t be in Kansas City for the All-Star Game, but that’s nowhere near as fun as just blaming Tony La Russa, even if only for old time’s sake.

CONTACT C. TRENT ROSECRANS: letters@citybeat.com, ctrent@cnati.com or on Twitter @ctrent