SEATTLE -- The most coveted free agent in baseball this winter could well turn out to be an old utility infielder with a lifetime batting average of .199.
Of course, Tony La Russa will be heading to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for his managerial skills, not his lackluster three-year playing career in the majors.And suddenly, the juiciest rumor in baseball is the one linking La Russa, who turns 63 next month and is at the end of a three-year contract in St. Louis, to a managerial opening in Seattle that doesn't even exist.
Buster Olney of ESPN was the latest to broach the subject Tuesday on a Seattle radio station, even hinting that La Russa and Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty could be a package deal. Fox's Ken Rosenthal floated the possibility of La Russa in Seattle last week.
The Mariners, meanwhile, have yet to reveal the status of incumbent manager John McLaren, who replaced Mike Hargrove on July 1, or general manager Bill Bavasi, who is completing his fourth season.
The team's recent slide, including a stretch of 17 losses in 22 games that knocked them out of contention, has increased the possibility that CEO Howard Lincoln's infamous hot seat could be back in play.
That makes the potential availability of La Russa, the third-winningest manager in baseball history behind only legends Connie Mack and John McGraw, a valid topic of discussion.
This year is La Russa's 12th with the Cardinals, whom he led to the 2006 World Series title and the 2004 National League pennant. It has been filled with tragedy, travail, turmoil and not much winning. A recent nine-game losing streak (sound familiar?) all but ended their hopes of prevailing in the weak NL Central.
La Russa's three-year contract, paying him $2.8 million in 2007, expires after the season. La Russa himself has helped fueled the talk of his imminent availability by leaving open the possibility that he won't return to St. Louis next year.
When USA Today, in a recent profile, wrote that La Russa "says he might pursue another managerial job at season's end," La Russa didn't refute the comments.
In the same article, La Russa said, "I still get fired up during the game and enjoy the wins and suffer the losses. I'm older now, but I'd still like to manage four more years."
Cardinals ownership, as well as Jocketty, have been consistent in saying that they want La Russa back. Despite the rumors, there are many close to the Cardinals situation who believe that La Russa will indeed return to the St. Louis. They feel he simply needs to distances himself from a trying season that included the death of reliever Josh Hancock, HGH rumors swirling around Rick Ankiel, a stint in rehab for substance abuse by Scott Spiezio, and a spate of injuries -- not to mention La Russa's own DWI arrest in spring training.
La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that the deciding factor on his return could be his relationship with the Cardinals' core players. It may be strained in some quarters, but is said to be strong with the player in St. Louis, Albert Pujols."There have been periods this year when we have struggled -- where I had to honestly let the team know we had to keep pushing," La Russa told the Post-Dispatch. "The product of that could be some strained relationships. There may have been some people who got their feelings hurt. If there is a lingering effect, that's significant."
Even author Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the bestseller "3 Nights in August" about La Russa, said on a St. Louis radio station this summer that he thinks La Russa will leave after the season.
"What did the owners give him in the form of talent this year? Kip Wells? I think Tony has had it," Bissinger said on air.
A manager of La Russa's status is guaranteed to be linked to openings both real and hypothetical. The Chicago media, for instance, was buzzing recently about the chances of him replacing Ozzie Guillen -- until Guillen received an extension last week.
La Russa and Jocketty -- who, not insignificantly, has a GM contract that runs through 2008, and would have to be released by the Cardinals to go elsewhere -- have also been mentioned as a package deal in Cincinnati, because of their relationship with the Reds' new CEO, Robert Castellini, a former Cardinals investor.
But an opening in Seattle is said to be the one that would genuinely intrigue La Russa, who still lives in the Bay Area. The Mariners, despite their collapse, are still regarded in the industry as a plum position for a variety of reasons, include livability, a beautiful ballpark, the nucleus in place, and payroll commitment.
The Mariners may well decide that McLaren, thrown unexpectedly into the manager's chair in July, deserves a full season, with his own staff, to show what he can do. It's not unreasonable to argue that the Mariners' demise is far more a product of the pitching inadequacies McLaren inherited than his X's and O's.
Don't underestimate Ichiro's esteem for McLaren as a factor in his favor. Sources indicate that Ichiro was given no guarantees about McLaren's future employment when he re-signed for five years barely a week after McLaren's ascension to the job. But it couldn't hurt when the team's franchise player is also one of your leading supporters.
The Mariners' front office had hoped these days to be reveling in an impending playoff series, or at the very least a race down to the wire. Instead, they are faced with a lot hard decisions in the next two weeks. Just like last year.
The potential availability of a legend like Tony La Russa is a fascinating wild card in the process.