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Sports Saturday

Tony La Russa says he’ll lean on White Sox’ clubhouse leaders

To wrap our minds around Tony La Russa managing the White Sox in 2021 requires a trail of memory neurons long enough to reach 1979.

Tony La Russa confers with catcher Carlton Fisk during La Russa’s first tour as White Sox manager.
Tony La Russa confers with catcher Carlton Fisk during La Russa’s first tour as White Sox manager.
Sun-Times photo

To wrap our minds around Tony La Russa managing the White Sox in 2021 requires a trail of memory neurons long enough to reach 1979.

That was the summer of Disco Demolition night, when Sox games were broadcast on fuzzy UHF Channel 44, the year ESPN launched with George Grande and Lee Leonard hosting “SportsCenter,” the year right-hander Steve Stone’s Orioles lost to the “We Are Family” Pirates in the World Series.

And that was the year general manager Roland Hemond hired La Russa to manage the Sox at 34.

If you’re 39 — like Twins manager and future La Russa foe Rocco Baldelli, for example — you were 5 in 1986 and likely don’t remember when La Russa was fired by then-Sox GM Ken Harrelson that season, three years after La Russa won his first of 12 division titles in a Hall of Fame career.

OK, so we’ve established that La Russa, hired by the Sox to be their manager Thursday, is advanced in years. He turned 76 on Oct. 4 and will be the third-oldest manager of all time behind Connie Mack, who managed till he was 87, and Jack McKeon, who managed until he was 80 after winning a World Series at 72 with the Marlins in 2003. Dusty Baker, 71, was the oldest manager in 2020.

La Russa’s competitors in the American League Central will be Terry Francona of the Indians, 61; Mike Matheny of the Royals, 50; AJ Hinch of the Tigers, 46; and Baldelli. And while there’s no doubt he’ll match wits and game decisions with all of them, the question is how he’ll relate to young players nine years removed from managing a team. Or, as one current Sox player said, how will an old-school manager “mesh with young, exciting new-school talent?”

La Russa said Thursday the clubhouse will take care of itself.

“They have a real good situation inside that clubhouse because the mix is so good,” he said. “And that’s because players have taken charge. [It’s] one of the first lessons that I learned as a manager in the ’80s with the White Sox because of Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Tom Paciorek and Jerry Koosman. Clubhouse leaders taking charge of that clubhouse, and then coordinating with the coaching staff and the manager is invaluable.”

La Russa said his coaching staffs since then have focused on doing the same. When he last managed the Cardinals, as he pointed out Thursday, he was in his 60s.

“Our clubs in St. Louis had the same array of young guys, prime guys and veterans [as the current Sox roster], and . . . the environment, the culture, the relationships that were built between our staff, me included, with them, it worked,” La Russa said. “And I haven’t changed X number of years later. The club is going to have young, it’s going to have prime, it’s going to have older guys, and I know that I’m going to work hard, and so will our staff.”

As Braves bench coach Walt Weiss, the Rockies’ manager from 2013 to 2016 who played for La Russa with the Athletics, said Thursday on MLB Network, “It all comes down to your effectiveness as a leader, and Tony is the best I’ve been around. When he gets in front of that club on Day 1, he’ll walk in with credibility, and he’ll command the room. When he gets in front of you, it’s gold.

“I think it’s ridiculous when people say the game has passed him by. I think it’s going to be right in his wheelhouse.”

“It’s true every year you start with the respect for us at zero, and you have to work every day to earn it,” La Russa said, “and I did it for years, and I’m going to try very hard to do it, and the players will decide. But I know that if I come at them with what I’ve learned and how I feel about putting that team in a good position to succeed, I think it will happen.”