The Chicago White Sox are perhaps the most fascinating team in baseball, in large part because of the team’s stunning offseason hiring of Tony La Russa as manager. TLR is 76, and hasn’t managed since retiring after the Cardinals’ World Series triumph in 2011.
La Russa is third in MLB history with 2,728 regular-season wins. Tack on another 70 career postseason victories. Add in 12 division titles, six pennants, three World Series championships and four Manager of the Year awards.
La Russa’s remarkable 33-season career was one of intensity, innovation, endurance and success. But questions abound after La Russa’s long absence from the dugout, and the discovery of his DUI arrest in February understandably created unwanted controversy for TLR and the White Sox. (The legal matter was resolved last month, and La Russa expressed remorse and anger over his poor judgment.)
What about the DUI? Isn’t this a big deal? Answer: Yes. Of course. It was Tony’s second DUI arrest; the first occurred in 2007 spring training in Jupiter, Fla. My answer: If he hasn’t learned his lesson by now, then he’ll be dealing with more problems than managing a baseball team. And he’d be a risk to himself and others. By now, I think Tony will make sure to have a car service lined up. He’s genuinely embarrassed by this.
Can La Russa relate to young players? Yes, in my opinion. Because I watched him do it for 16 seasons in St. Louis. Better yet, ask Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, David Freese, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Jay, Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker or so many other younger Cardinals that flourished with La Russa as manager. In other words: just because Colby Rasmus was a head case, it didn’t mean La Russa was at fault. I also observed how La Russa — multiple times — adapted to a roster and made changes to improve his relationship with players. I don’t believe he’s forgotten the need to take the clubhouse temperature and adjust accordingly.
Does La Russa have sufficient enthusiasm for advanced metrics? My answer: more than most of his skeptics and critics assume. La Russa, however, is steadfast in this belief: you can’t take the human element out of the competition. And he’s right about that. But when La Russa makes that point — which he’s done many times — his view is misinterpreted as “Hates Analytics.” That’s wrong. The difference? La Russa isn’t overly dependent on baseball’s new math. He isn’t a robot. That said, I think it’s fair to say that this is something we should keep an eye on.
Baseball has evolved in other ways since La Russa managed the Cardinals nine seasons ago. Can he keep up with the changes? My response: are you kidding me? La Russa was ahead of his time in implementing aggressive tactics to front-load his relievers into games. Remember the 2011 postseason? La Russa didn’t invent the concept of having specialized relievers, saved for specific late-game matchups. But he refined the system and got more out of it than other managers. As Oakland’s manager in 1993, La Russa broke his own record by making 424 pitching changes.
As Tom Verducci wrote at SI.com in reaction to TLR’s retirement: “La Russa did something few managers have done in this game: He changed how it was played. He inserted himself so forcefully into running a game that his impact was known as if he were a star player. His greatest tool to apply that force — to try to control the conditions of a game as much as he could — was his bullpen usage.”
In other areas, La Russa made maximum use of super-utility players. He was highly effective at using his entire 25-man roster, and wouldn’t let players languish on the bench or in the bullpen. He had different ideas about lineup construction, breaking the old-school template by putting power and danger in the No. 2 hole.
La Russa may have been sharper than the rest way back when, but surely his senses are duller now … right? Hasn’t he been away from the game too long? Answer: not really. When La Russa announced his retirement, he didn’t retire from baseball. He retired from managing. And during his nine years away from the dugout, he’s had a front-office job the entire time. He earned a World Series ring with the 2018 Boston Red Sox after serving as senior adviser to team baseball president Dave Dombrowski. TLR all but lived in ballparks during his so-called sabbatical from managing. He has spent a lot of time scouting players, filing reports, exchanging ideas with other baseball people — and generally trying to figure out even more ways to gain an edge.
I will say this: my only concern about TLR is his stamina. Oh, he has plenty of energy … but that really isn’t the point. Including the postseason, La Russa managed 5,225 big-league games over a span that bridged five decades. He almost always went into the ballpark with peak intensity. As I’ve said many times, La Russa managed 162 (or more) baseball games per season with the vigor and urgency of a football coach. But NFL coaches have to max out for 16 regular-season games, not 162.
That smoldering intensity was an important element of La Russa’s success. But at age 76, can TLR keep his motor spinning at his customary revolution rate? And will he have to make concessions to age? Answer: I wouldn’t doubt him, but all of that is yet to be determined.
“There’s plenty of jokes to be made as far as all the things outside of baseball,” White Sox reliever Evan Marshall told Chicago-are media in a recent video call. “But as for baseball-related, everybody knows you’re getting an ace as far as game-calling, and that’s the only thing anybody really cares about. He has a hell of a past and hopefully a good future for us, and as long as he’s putting the X’s and O’s together in the right sequence, that’s all that matters. And I think he’s going to help us do that.
“And, sure, there is plenty to be said about the age factor, and we have an extremely young team just full of talent. You go back to Tony’s peak years when he managed in Oakland and St. Louis, the game has changed quite a bit, but he has never left the game and is up to date on how things have evolved.”
As he takes over the White Sox, La Russa already has three advantages working for him: (1) franchise owner Jerry Reinsdorf is one of his best friends; that will reduce the background noise and distractions. (2) White Sox GM Rick Hahn is one of the best in the business; La Russa worked closely with general managers Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak in St. Louis. And, before that, Sandy Alderson in Oakland. La Russa wasn’t shy about challenging his GMs on personnel matters — but didn’t blow up when overruled. The respect level was healthy. (3) The White Sox have a talented team.
Last season the White Sox went 35-25 but blew a chance to win the AL Central by losing seven of their final eight games. In a best-of-three AL wild card series the White Sox won the opener but dropped the next two games to get bounced from the postseason. Manager Rick Renteria was widely criticized for his questionable pitching/bullpen decisions, and that prompted Reinsdorf to gauge La Russa’s potential interest in the job. Reinsdorf coveted La Russa’s championship-winning experience and his ability to push players into delivering their best performances.
This could be termed as an experiment. Or perhaps a reunion; Reinsdorf fired TLR as White Sox manager during the 1986 season and quickly came to regret the decision. Now the old pals are teaming up again.
La Russa inherits a roster that finished second in the AL in runs per game (5.1) last season. The 2020 White Sox led the league in homers and slugging percentage and were second in OPS+. The projected lineup is impressive: Tim Anderson at shortstop, Adam Eaton in RF, Yasmani Grandal at catcher, Jose Abreu at 1B, Eloy Jimenez at DH, Yoan Moncada at 3B, Luis Robert in center, Adam Engel in LF, and Nick Madrigal at 2B.
A Chicago rotation that ranked fourth in the AL for best ERA last season and is built around Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, and recent trade addition Lance Lynn. A bullpen that had ample punch-out power was strengthened by the signing of the top free-agent closer on the market, Liam Hendriks. The former Oakland closer agreed to a three-year, $54 million deal that includes a club option for a fourth year. Since the start of the 2019 season Hendricks has a 1.79 ERA and 38% strikeout rate in 110 innings.
When you hire a 76-year-old manager, the goal is to win (and win big) immediately. That’s why the White Sox made a trade with Texas for Lynn, who ranks 5th in the majors in WAR among starters over the last two seasons. La Russa wanted Lynn’s veteran toughness. If Lynn was TLR’s first request, landing a premium closer was next on the list.
‘‘It helps you set up the rest of the bullpen, and it also has an effect on your opponents, knowing that the game has gotten short,’’ La Russa told Chicago media in a Zoom call, before the signing of Hendriks. ‘‘But what you see over the years is that as the bullpens have been used more, the deeper the bullpen, the better your chances.
“And that’s one of the things that stands out about the 2021 White Sox going forward. ‘We have legitimate starters in Lynn and Lucas and Dallas, and we’ve got some outstanding young talent. But what you end up doing is you do the best you can to identify that late-inning closer.’’
TLR wanted a fireballing closer?
The White Sox are a popular choice to win the AL Central, at least until the Twins make some moves to improve.
“It’s really important that we understand that you can’t assume anything’s going to happen unless you make it happen,” La Russa said during the recent video call. “You can’t be afraid of the pressure and the challenge; you embrace it. Part of it is recognizing how tough it is to win. Just look at our division, the success of Minnesota and Cleveland over the past years, and the way Kansas City and Detroit are improving. And then there’s the rest of the American League, the East and the West. There’s nothing that makes us think that we’re the favorites. What we should think is that we have a legitimate chance.”
From an entertainment standpoint, the Reinsdorf-TLR reunion is fantastic. Will it work? I’m more optimistic about the La Russa Comeback than most. But it would be stupid to ignore the risks, and the potential hazards. La Russa may be 76, but he’s aged well. He didn’t come out of retirement to embarrass himself.
This reminds me of future Hall of Fame Earl Weaver coming out of retirement during the 1985 season to return as the Baltimore Orioles’ manager. Earl had a lot of miles on him, but he was a much younger at the time (55) than La Russa is now. And the Weaver retirement had lasted only 2.5 years, not nine. Despite getting off to a positive sWeaver’s return unraveled. After the ‘86 Orioles crested at 13 games over .500 on June 8, they collapsed to a 40-69 record the rest of the way. After a 73-89 season, Weaver returned to his Florida home and retired for good.
I make no predictions on La Russa, but I wish him the best. And this much is certain: pay attention, because this will be one helluva story during the 2021 season.
Thanks for reading …
Listen to Bernie on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. Or you can listen online or download the show podcast at 590the fan.com … the 590 app is available in the app store.