The Jerry Reinsdorf problem: When an owner doesn’t want to own up to anything

The White Sox’ two-year debacle is marked not just by their dismal performance but by ownership’s inaction.

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White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf taking in batting practice.

White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is loyal to a fault to his employees.

Jeff Haynes/AP

It’s hard to picture an owner wanting the unraveling of a professional sports franchise to be part of his permanent record. But what if an owner doesn’t see it as an unraveling but as a few loose strings being yanked by a hyperventilating media and a genetically cranky fan base?

That would be the Jerry Reinsdorf many White Sox fans know. It’s possible his body contains trace amounts of angst about his imploding team, but the seasoned observer would guess that the chairman figures that this, too, will pass. That guess is based on Reinsdorf’s historical refusal to make changes or to offer any public explanations, his standard do-nothing, say-nothing response to turmoil.

But this isn’t turmoil. This is a two-year debacle that’s marked not just by the team’s dismal performance but by the owner’s inaction.

It’s hard to understand the point of this nothingness, this sports nihilism. Why own a team if you don’t want to behave like an owner? If you want to run a neighborhood grocery store where all the employees have worked there for 30 years and you know the customers by name, go do that. But even a grocery store owner wouldn’t put up with ineffective stockers and some bad apples in the produce department.

What’s the point of being an owner of a professional sports franchise if it’s not to win? There is no other point. There was a memorial for Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on Tuesday. Friends and associates flocked to a Chicago church to honor him. What most everyone in Chicago will remember about him is that he brought the Hawks back to life after his father, Bill, had sat on them for so long. The team won three Stanley Cups under Rocky’s ownership. But Chicago also will remember the sexual-assault scandal that turned the franchise upside down in 2021, a reminder that the things that happen later in a life can have more prominence when you pass away.

Reinsdorf apparently wants to let his six NBA titles and one World Series title talk for him, as if that has the final word on everything. If he’s thinking that no one can take that away from him, he’s right. But we’re 25 years removed from the last of those Bulls titles and 18 years removed from the Sox’ last championship. It might not be ancient history, but it’s heading toward medieval history.

Sox fans aren’t thinking warm thoughts about the 2005 World Series anymore. They’re wondering how tomorrow will be worse than today. The past two years include the hiring of 76-year-old Tony La Russa, a slew of white-flag trades at this year’s deadline and a former Sox pitcher, Keynan Middleton, recently saying the team had “no rules.’’ You can understand why Sox fans have so much scar tissue. When Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez dropped Sox shortstop Tim Anderson with a punch the other day, it served as the perfect illustration for the state of the franchise.

The Sox rank 23rd in attendance at 22,138, about where they’ve been each of the past 10 years. That means it’s not bad enough to get Reinsdorf’s attention, raising the question: What would get his attention? Short of his beloved Brooklyn getting voted out of New York, I can’t think of a thing.

It’s been one indignity after another for the Sox and their fans. A more responsive owner would reach out in some way, whether it be through the media to calm the fan base or through — what’s that obscure word? — action. Firing a manager or a general manager during the season isn’t always the answer, but it is an answer. But, no. Not here. If there’s one thing we know about Reinsdorf, it’s not just that he sticks to his guns. It’s that he thinks he invented guns. His way, then, is always the right way. His way is to stand still.

Even when he makes a “mistake,’’ it’s not really his. After then-Sox general manager Hawk Harrelson fired La Russa in 1986, Reinsdorf spent years telling anyone who would listen that he regretted letting Harrelson talk him into it. That regret led Reinsdorf to try to remedy the error by rehiring La Russa as the Sox manager in 2020.

It was just one of the many embarrassments of the past two years.

Sox general manager Rick Hahn, the architect of a rebuild that was supposed to lead to winning but didn’t, surely sees how bad this all looks. He has enough advanced degrees to run a university, so he’s smart enough to understand how shocking it is that he’s still employed. Shocking anywhere but on the South Side. In his 11 seasons at GM, the Sox have made the playoffs just twice.

“This is the nature of the beast,’’ Hahn said recently when asked about an unhappy fan base’s cry for changes to be made.

But that’s just it. There is no beast here. There are no teeth. There are no repercussions.

There’s only Jerry Reinsdorf, alone on an island and unavailable for comment.

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