It’s Time to Talk About Tony La Russa
As the La Russa rumors have heated up, it has become more important to analyze the possibility of the Sox bringing back their old skipper.
As soon as news broke that the White Sox were firing Rick Renteria, rumors swirled that they were going after the obvious candidates in AJ Hinch, Alex Cora, and Sandy Alomar Jr. However, White Sox fans were allowed almost no time to fantasize as Bob Nightengale reported that afternoon that the White Sox were interested in their former manager and longtime Jerry Reinsdorf friend, Tony La Russa.
For starters, I do not believe this scenario will ultimately come to fruition, as it is likely a media ploy similar to Reinsdorf’s other team, the Bulls, leaking their interest in reuniting with former coach Doug Collins prior to the 2008 season. It is also difficult to envision Rick Hahn being on board with this plan, especially after all the time, energy, and money spent on this rebuilt White Sox roster. Hahn has remained remarkably realistic, grounded, and transparent with the media throughout this process, and making a move like this that flies in the face of common sense would be surprising, to say the least.
But as the La Russa rumors heated up and the Angels granted the White Sox permission to talk to him, it has become more important to analyze the possibility of the Sox bringing back their old skipper.
La Russa’s Past Baggage
This starts with breaking down La Russa’s connection and everlasting friendship with Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf bought the team in 1981 and inherited La Russa as a manager. When the two sat down, Reinsdorf was immediately blown away by La Russa’s presence and knowledge of the game, and La Russa led a turnaround of a mediocre team to respectability and ultimately the #1 seed in the AL West in the 1983 season. But during a tumultuous start to the 1986 season under one-year general manager Hawk Harrelson (!) that included a failed attempt to turn Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk into a left fielder, La Russa was fired by Hawk.
Reinsdorf still regrets it to this day. “I made the biggest mistake of my life,” Reinsdorf said. “First of all, I made Hawk the general manager. That was pretty stupid. But I’ve always believed if you had somebody in charge of a department, he should have his own people. So I allowed him to fire Tony. It was the dumbest thing I ever did.”
In this article from 2014, Reinsdorf even admits that he knew the A’s were going to hire La Russa as soon as he was available and that he would not have allowed Hawk to pull the trigger without that knowledge. When La Russa was available again in 1995, Reinsdorf already wanted to bring him back, but then-GM Ron Schueler was against the move.
When analyzing La Russa’s potential fit with the White Sox today, one line of thinking floating around White Sox Twitter is that at least La Russa is not a cheater. Well, I have bad news for that crowd. As the Astros scandal was breaking this past January, former White Sox All-Star pitcher Jack McDowell publicized the claim that La Russa perpetuated and expanded the long-time baseball tradition of sign-stealing with the White Sox back in the ‘80s.
“We had a system in the old Comiskey Park in the late 1980s,” said McDowell, “The Gatorade sign out in center had a light; there was a toggle switch in the manager’s office and [a] camera zoomed in on the catcher. I’m gonna whistle-blow this now because I’m getting tired of this crap. There was that — Tony La Russa is the one who put it in. … He’s still in the game making half a million, you know?”
McDowell interestingly added that the game used to police itself in a way it simply can’t anymore, “Back in the day, it was like, ‘You want to steal signs, yeah that helmet better be working right now.'”
To believe that La Russa played the game “clean” is simply not true. This was further proven during his time in Oakland when he presided over arguably the most steroid-riddled clubhouse in baseball history between a young Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. In a 2010 interview when La Russa had brought McGwire on as a hitting instructor with the Cardinals, he laughably told Baseball Tonight that he didn’t know the slugger had ever used steroids until McGwire admitted it to him earlier that week. So to argue that La Russa has a leg up on AJ Hinch or Alex Cora on this topic is nothing more than a misnomer.
Potential Clashes with Current Clubhouse
Another aspect to consider is La Russa’s attitude towards on-field antics. The game is evolving to allow the players to show more personality and style. From Javy Baez’ swagger to Trevor Bauer’s post-strikeout struts, it’s becoming more prevalent in the modern era of baseball. And the White Sox are certainly no exception. Tim Anderson has stolen the show with his javelin-style bat tosses after big home runs and has repeatedly talked about “Changing the Game” — so much so that the White Sox adopted the slogan for the 2020 season. Beyond that, the White Sox are just a fun baseball team, including the bat drops of Yoan Moncada and Yasmani Grandal as well as the oozing confidence of Luis Robert (even in struggles).
So how does La Russa feel about all of this? One point of reference is his time with young superstars in Oakland, where he notably took exception to Jose Canseco’s showboating antics and would confront him about it on numerous occasions. Throughout his career, La Russa has been known for abiding by the old-school “unwritten rules” of baseball. He has routinely held grudges against players and teams up to and including his time running the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he stormed into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcast booth during a game where they were discussing La Russa’s beanball history.
In order for players to succeed at the highest level, they have to feel comfortable being themselves. Unless La Russa has done a complete 180 on his previous mindset, this young team would undoubtedly feel constrained by his old-school presence. The other factor to consider is how potential free agents would view the White Sox under La Russa. It would be difficult to envision Trevor Bauer signing up to play for him, but even lesser-known free agents both this year and in the future would likely have a tough time seeing the White Sox as a destination under a La Russa regime.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we have recently seen the entire sports world come together to stand against social injustice, and hiring a leader of the team who understands the social climate is more important than ever. Unfortunately, based on his own comments, La Russa is not that man.
In this article from 2016, Jeff Passan really hits him hard, where La Russa’s contempt for peaceful protest is on full display, “I would tell [a player protesting the anthem to] sit inside the clubhouse, You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag. No, sir, I would not allow it.” La Russa goes on to question the sincerity of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, and there are some other ugly quotes not worth repeating here.
But that was four years ago; perhaps La Russa’s perspective may have changed to align more with the times? In an interview just this past February of 2020 with Graham Bensinger, we learned that that is not the case. In fact, La Russa doubled down on his contempt for peaceful protests of social injustice, saying it is the wrong way to protest.
Contrast that with the two current World Series managers who both allowed their players to express their views however they saw fit. Then contrast that with Tim Anderson, a team leader and arguably the best player, peacefully protesting on opening day while Yoan Moncada and Rick Renteria placed a hand on his shoulders.
For a major-market team like the White Sox, if these viewpoints are not outright disqualifiers they have to be close. Combine that with La Russa’s complete mismatch personality-wise with the roster and his own history of cheating the game, and this hiring would be seen as nothing short of an incredible disappointment. It is still early in the managerial search, so hopefully we will get more clarity on the White Sox’s true intentions once the World Series concludes and the suspensions of A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora are a thing of the past.