For what it’s worth, the White Sox could win 110 games and win the World Series with no negative publicity in 2021 and we will forget – or etch in White Sox history – about Thursday, October 29th, 2020.
As of now though, the reaction to the White Sox hiring 76-year-old Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa is completely justified. Since he originally retired from managing after the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series win, his subsequent jobs have all involved former connections. His Diamondbacks’ job? Returned there because of Roland Hemond, the general manager who gave him the White Sox job in 1979. Red Sox? Dave Dombrowski connection. There isn’t a direct connection between him and the Angels, but it’s probably not a coincidence that he and Joe Maddon entered the organization at the same time.
As noted by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the La Russa hire, like a majority of hires in baseball, is rooted in cronyism. Instead of getting to pick his preferred manager—a young, analytical manager for a young team that, if not for a bad stretch in the final weeks of the season, would have been playing the Astros at home in the Wild Card series—Rick Hahn interviewed two candidates and was forced to settle for Jerry Reinsdorf’s friend. The same friend that was fired over thirty years prior by the White Sox’ vice president in 1986, Ken Harrelson, and that the owner called “his worst decision in sports“. With the hiring of him as manager, Reinsdorf finally redeemed such a mistake; by doing so, he may have created a mistake with more ramifications.
While the age is the main factor as to why the baseball world is collectively losing their minds, that’s just the smokescreen for the real issues people have with the hiring.
Just sixteen players between the two World Series teams from 2011 remain active in MLB, and just three (Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Elvis Andrus) remain on those teams. An entire generation of players has passed in the nine years since La Russa last managed a baseball game. Now, the same man who managed Tom Seaver, Dennis Eckersley, Dusty Baker, and both bash brothers — including Mark McGwire on two different teams — will be tasked with managing a team that has Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, and Eloy Jimenez (all under 30 years old) as its stars.
In hiring La Russa, Reinsdorf passed over many other managers that had championship experience but are also young analytically-inclined, both mentioned by the White Sox. Names that fit both categories, like new Tigers’ manager A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora, were passed over. Bo Portor has been waiting for another opportunity since managing the worst era of Houston Astros baseball in 2013 and 2014. That is not including the dozens of young analytically-minded coaches out there with championship experience just looking for a managerial job (Joe Espada). Even if you wanted to hire someone with that much experience, Bruce Bochy and Buck Showalter, the latter more entrenched in analytics than other “traditional” baseball guys, were guys available on the market.
No matter what La Russa’s resume states, all of them would have been better candidates to manage this team.
The last time La Russa was a manager in MLB, he was allowed to make in-game decisions at will and might be a factor as to why an 83-win Cardinal team stormed the postseason and won the World Series. Nowadays, even with my own personal beliefs that a manager still has slight factors in the course of a ballgame, most duties are heavily aided or made by the analytics staff. In this era in baseball, the manager’s job has been degraded to “clubhouse attendant” and “bullpen manager”. There is no way that a Hall of Fame manager — not future, current Hall of Famer — would ever accept that, and that is essentially what he stated in his introductory press conference:
“Once the game starts, it’s a very volatile experience. Players, not machines. How they vary, how the game may be changing within innings, much less games to series. That’s why I think it’s very important we use the term “observational analytics.” So I think the difference is the preparation will be better — I’m looking forward to it — but the actual game decision-making will be much like what I learned: You watch the game and try to figure out how to put people in position to win.
There’s a lot of great, new information, a lot of great ways that you can improve how you coach up or prepare. The difference is that once the game starts, there is no formula that can measure the head, heart and guts of a player that day.”Tony La Russa
The traditional beliefs of Tony La Russa do not end there. How about the “#LetTheKidsPlay” campaign? The White Sox roster is an entire ensemble of emotional characters on the field, from Tim Anderson launching his bat to the dugout to Lucas Giolito coming very close to breaking the sound barrier after his no-hitter (and now, potentially, Tim Beckham). Suddenly, a man who was still playing gatekeeper to the “unwritten rules” of the game less than three months ago is being tasked to manage this group of players (Spoiler: it was about the infamous Fernando Tatis Jr. 3-0 grand slam).
And then there are his beliefs off the field. Just four years ago, he conducted a scathing interview on ESPN’s “The Dan LeBatard Show” and an even worse interview with Sports Illustrated where he degraded the national anthem protests — in a direct response to Adam Jones calling baseball a “white man’s sport” — and cast aspersions on Colin Kaepernick’s sincerity for protesting.
These comments raise eyebrows, not just because of the increased tension in the United States since the killing of George Floyd, but because of the team he is about to manage. Seventeen players on the White Sox current spring training roster are Black or Hispanic, including it’s three biggest stars — Robert, Moncada, and Anderson. Anderson once called himself “Today’s Jackie Robinson” and has been a vocal leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and The Players Alliance, a nonprofit group made up of current and former Black players. He, as well as Abreu, Robert, Jimenez, Giolito and three other uniformed personnel, joined a sudden movement by MLB and knelt during the national anthem in 2020.
Both fronts were addressed in the press conference on Thursday, and while he stepped back from his previous stances, he also used the same keyword that he used when talking about the issue in 2016: sincerity. Who is Tony La Russa to determine the sincerity of an Anderson bat flip after a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tight ballgame? Who is Tony La Russa to determine the sincerity of Anderson kneeling on the field during the national anthem during an early April game? The caveat of “if it’s sincere” or “if it’s done sincerely” only leads me to believe that La Russa’s subjective judgment — which was only cleansed on Thursday with his experience with Black players and the almighty “there is not a racist bone in my body” quote — will determine such sincerity in the room.
“If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing and identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side. And as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere — and what I’m learning more and more with the Players Alliance and especially with the White Sox, when your protests actually have action-oriented results, the way that you’re going to impact to make things better — I’m all for it.”Tony La Russa
Like he wasn’t sure about Kaepernick’s sincerity, I am not sure about his sincerity with these comments. And if there are any players out there that the Sox may target in free agency — most notably Marcus Stroman — that question La Russa’s sincerity like I do, the White Sox are in sincere trouble on that market.
Again, this is less about his age. Notice how both Maddon and Dusty Baker got jobs last offseason and neither caused as much of a firestorm (outside of Angels’ Twitter)? Notice how very few resisted the hiring of Ron Gardenhire or how Ron Washington continues to get interviews for most opportunities? This is about the issues that surround La Russa; the traditionalist attitude towards the game, him being a gatekeeper with his players, the cronyistic way he got the job, how long it has been since he has been in uniform and the fact that he is a current Hall of Famer as a manager, which is typically a sign that the legendary career has concluded.
We could all be completely wrong. La Russa can be the leader he was in his Hall of Fame career and lead the White Sox to a championship or he can be a tyrant, lose the trust of everyone, and the White Sox waste two years of this young core’s championship window.
Everyone around baseball, from players to fans — both fans of the White Sox and other teams — to the media, to many in the White Sox organization, was shocked by this move. So much, in fact, that the White Sox P.R staff announced the hiring with A.J. Hinch’s signature. The White Sox had the cream of the crop managerial opening: a young team, a playoff team, in one of the biggest markets in the U.S., a popular destination for years. This is the dream job, only existing thrice in the past decade (Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees). Instead, Rick Hahn and the White Sox front office and analytics team’s desires were trumped by an owner, fulfilling a “make-up deal” with his friend: someone that does not fit what the White Sox are trying to do, and someone that is a step backward from what today’s game of baseball is.
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).