Ozzie Guillen was disappointed when White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsforf called the day Rick Renteria was fired, disappointed because Reinsdorf wasn’t going to name him the new field boss entrusted to take a talented team to a championship.
But the feeling didn’t last. When Tony La Russa was named manager, Guillen felt relieved. In his view, the Sox hired the best man available, even better than him — and Guillen led the Sox to their only World Series title in Reinsdorf’s tenure.
That opinion, of course, puts Guillen, who played for La Russa as a rookie in 1984, in the minority. Sox fans, employees and media largely pushed back, citing La Russa’s 76 years and absence from managing since 2011, and throwing their hands up against what looked to many like a hire smacking of cronyism because of La Russa’s friendship with Reinsforf.
When it became known that La Russa was hired a day after charges had been brought against him for a second DUI, stemming from an arrest in February the Sox said they knew about, the pushback intensified. But it did nothing to make Guillen waver from his original stance about the third-winningest manager of all time with three World Series rings.
“It’s still a great hire,” Guillen said Thursday. “I know exactly what the White Sox need, I know the kind of players they have. I watched those guys every inning, every pitch this season. We need to get over the hump, and that’s why we hired Tony La Russa.
“People talk about Tony and are upset and make comments and say he’s too old, he’s this, he’s that. They don’t know Tony La Russa. Tony wasn’t out of the game for nine years. Tony will make those guys play better.”
Guillen’s best friend was killed in an alcohol-related auto accident, and his son, Ozzie Jr., has been open about taking on a personal battle with alcoholism. Guillen said he understands firsthand the seriousness of drinking and driving.
“To criticize a guy who makes the same mistake twice, I must look myself in the mirror first,” Guillen said. “It’s a sensitive subject that upsets many people. When I talk about Tony, I am talking about Tony the baseball guy. Can Tony win games? Can Tony help this team? In my experience and opinion, yes, Tony can bring that.
“The DUI is a personal issue away from the field that his bosses will handle how they should, like in every job. Players will have to decide if they play for Tony, period. Some guys will care, others will not. But will the Sox win or lose the game because of Tony’s DUI? I don’t think so. Do I believe what Tony did was wrong? Yes, it’s irresponsible and dangerous and selfish. This is a moment for the players to learn from this mistake, and fans know I did.
“It’s an awful situation, but to finger-point, I can’t. Everyone is battling their issues. Tony is here to manage a baseball team, not be an AA sponsor. I know the issue very well. My son has been sober for multiple years now. Maybe that’s why I don’t judge him like that.”
A pre- and postgame studio analyst for NBC Sports Chicago whose candor, especially when working alongside Frank Thomas, was must-see TV for fans this season, Guillen said he saw a team that pounded on the Royals, Tigers and Pirates but didn’t distinguish itself against the best teams.
But he said it has the talent to do so.
The fun-loving clubhouse atmosphere was well and good, Guillen said, but there were times when he wanted to see players show more urgency on the field.
“At times they looked like they did whatever they want,” Guillen said. “We need to be a little tougher with the players. Not a boot camp or military thing, no. We have to start playing the game right. We have too much talent to not win this division. To me, making the playoffs last year was nothing. We had a good enough team to win the division.”
Guillen said La Russa will have the right balance of blending new-age thinking with “the way baseball should be played in the new era.”
For those who say La Russa will be out of touch with today’s player, Guillen scoffs.
“Come on,” he said. “He has managed all kinds of players — superstars, rookies of the year, young players, Hall of Famers, [bad] players, racist players, African American, Latino, Japanese, everything in the checkbook. He speaks better Spanish than Renteria.”
Last week, American League MVP Jose Abreu, who reached out to Albert Pujols for a read on La Russa — said he told La Russa he would have his back.
“When Tony walks into the clubhouse, that’s Tony La Russa,” Guillen said. “He’s the man in the organization, he’s the man in the clubhouse, he’s the man in baseball. Tony has his own way of seeing baseball, and he’s going to make those guys try to follow them. If those guys follow Tony, I guarantee you we will have a good team.”