When Tony La Russa signed on last fall to manage the Cardinals for another season and potentially two, it commonly was assumed, as much as one can assume anything about La Russa, that he would fulfill those two years and, in the process, become the second winningest manager of all time.
He needed just 126 victories to pass New York Giants Hall of Famer John McGraw at 2.764 and that figured to be come in June of 2012.
But then this spring, La Russa suddenly began displaying ugly blotches on the right side of his face and forehead, one eye was almost slammed shut like a boxer in trouble and he started experiencing teeth-chilling, mind-numbing headaches. Rather blind to the situation, La Russa soldiered on, taking naps on his couch in his office in the afternoon and then trying to get through the game. He refused to take any medication during the game for fear he wouldn't be sharp mentally.
But, then, at night, when the contest was over, he would be in pain again.
"During the game, my adrenaline was pumping," said La Russa, who will be 67 next week. "I was miserable after the game and before the next one."
He didn't lament his condition publicly but La Russa said, "I'm not a real tough individual so I probably complained more. Don't let anybody tell you I'm tough because I'm not."
La Russa could have prevented much of his discomfort if he had taken his pain medicine during the day to help combat what was diagnosed as a form of shingles.
"I should have taken the medicine. I would have saved myself six weeks of pain. I might have been drowsy and made better decisions," said La Russa, smiling.
Belatedly, as La Russa finally heeded the suggestions of family and friends to take time off, he left the club for a week. His first stop was the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the shingles diagnosis was confirmed and a treatment schedule was prescribed. His next stop was St. Louis, while the team was in Chicago and Cincinnati, for as complete a rest as La Russa would allow himself.
La Russa, whose visage had not yet returned to normal, returned to the dugout in St. Louis on May 16 as his team beat the ultimate National League Eastern Division champion Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1.
It would take him another month and a half to be himself again but he said he began feeling better "as soon as I started taking the pain pills."
But while La Russa might not always have looked as if he was having any fun this season, he insists that he was.
"Even when I wasn't feeling well," he said. "this is a good group of guys who are very professional and they're also good people on a personal level.
"They've been neat to be around in good times and bad times."
The times have been good lately because the Cardinals charged into playoff contention when they seemed hopelessly out of it. And, that, says La Russa, is the real fun in the game.
"We could have a bunch of jerks and you could have fun," he said, "because the games mean something.
"For four months I think we earned a lot of respect from our fans, our peers," said La Russa. "Then we went through a period of about 10 days (in late August) where we were stumbling and fumbling. We had had a lot of stuff flying, with the injuries and everything and we had done a nice job.
"Then we had that stretch which ended with the Dodgers sweeping us. We're four over (67-63) and I'm thinking, ‘Man, we've got a chance to finish under .500.'
"But the guys pulled together. What we kind of shared (during a team meeting) was ‘Hey, we've had four hellacious months earning respect from our fans and our peers. We can't let that get away.' And they haven't. We got back to where everybody is applauding our efforts."
The efforts have netted the Cardinals their ninth playoff appearance in their 16 seasons under No. 10. And, in divisional series play, La Russa is king.
In eight previous first-round competitions, La Russa's Cardinals teams have won six of them, sweeping four series and being swept only once - the last time the Cardinals were in the postseason in 2009 when they were dusted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in three games.
So more fun is ahead.
"Any time you put this uniform on," said La Russa, "there's a certain amount of fun involved.