He was just a glorified cheerleader and a lucky-to-be-there one at that.
Tony La Russa said so himself.
But La Russa was being too modest, which, gosh, he must have realized. At first blush, it even might come off a tad disingenuous the way he addressed — after the White Sox’ 3-0 victory in early June against the Tigers at Guaranteed Rate Field — his own role in passing John McGraw for second all-time among major-league managers with career victory No. 2,764:
“There really wasn’t anything except cheerleading. It’s a tribute, I think, to good fortune.”
As if being a four-time Manager of the Year with six World Series appearances — three ending in championships — doesn’t speak to the individual excellence required for such prosperity. As if his No. 10 immortalized on the outfield fence at Busch Stadium in St. Louis is merely for show. Oh, yeah, and the Hall of Fame thing: As if being the only active manager with a plaque in Cooperstown is just the answer to a trivia question.
“This man is the best manager in the game’s history,” says former World Series-winning Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen, who played for La Russa with the Sox in 1985 and — until the latter man was fired midseason — 1986. “And people are still talking [expletive] about him?”
That talk came — from Day 1 — with his second go-round with the Sox, who hired him at 76 last October. What was chairman Jerry Reinsdorf thinking? Maybe it was wrong to eighty-six La Russa in ’86, but to bring him back half a lifetime later?
“Tony La Russa Is Wrong for the White Sox, and for the Modern MLB,” The Ringer declared in a headline.
“Despite HOF Credentials, Tony La Russa Is a Baffling Hire for Young White Sox,” Bleacher Report posited in another.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted that the hiring “ruffled feathers” in the Sox organization and that “a number of employees have concerns about his ability to connect with younger players” — concerns Guillen says he heard expressed directly.
And then came reports of a second DUI the Sox knew about when they hired La Russa, which exacerbated criticisms from various corners in regard to his on- and off-field compasses. It didn’t help his Q-rating when his unawareness of an extra-inning rule contributed to an early Sox loss or when a flap involving popular hitter Yermin Mercedes unfolded days later.
“To say he hasn’t made any mistakes, No. 1, that would be dumb,” Sox broadcaster Steve Stone says. “He also would readily admit that he’s made some mistakes. . . .
“But when you bring in a Hall of Fame manager, he doesn’t forget how to manage.”
Witness: a division title despite a parade of injuries to key position players and pitchers. A team of special young talents mixed with stalwart veterans that plays hard, has fun and clearly fits together. And an electrified buzz on the South Side about what’s to come during the next month-plus — in no small part because of an old manager who is proving a hell of a lot of people wrong as he seemingly gets more popular all the time.
“I’m just so happy for him,” says Walt Jocketty, La Russa’s general manager for 11 seasons with the Cardinals, who took in the game Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
In their Cardinals days, La Russa would get upset about this or that and tell his boss, “Don’t worry — you want me upset.” A chip on the shoulder was a helpful thing. La Russa won’t say it to just anyone, but you can believe he has one now.
“That’s what this [Sox job] did for him,” Jocketty says. “All those things that were said? Additional motivation.”
Still, La Russa isn’t a man who wants to talk about himself. Just try to do a cover story on him at playoff time. Or any other time, really.
“The players deserve 100% of the focus and attention,” La Russa says. “Making it about myself is the last thing I’ll do.”
If that’s disingenuous, La Russa at least deserves credit for sticking to the bit.
“That’s the way he’s always been,” Jocketty says. “He never wants it about him. He wants it about the players, about the coaching staff. But he’s the guy who brings it all together.”
“I’ve never seen a club where the manager used 25 guys and used them within their role as well as Tony has,” veteran catcher Carlton Fisk said in a champagne-soaked home clubhouse at Comiskey Park that night.
“He wears No. 10,” GM Roland Hemond said of his kid skipper, “and he’s a 10 in every respect.”
Current GM Rick Hahn wasn’t as certain about how La Russa, whom he didn’t know well, would shake out — now wearing No. 22, like that matters — with the Sox. Would he be able to relate to players of all ages and personalities? Would he collaborate and communicate well with the front office? Would it be his way, all day, come what may?
“I don’t think it would’ve necessarily surprised if he had walked through the door and said, ‘This is the way I’ve always done it, I’ve had the success, I have these rings, I have the Hall of Fame career and this is how we’re going to do things,’ ” Hahn says. “Instead, he walked through the door making it clear he had these ideas about how things work, but he wanted to prove why it worked and wanted everyone to buy in to his approach.
“I think the players felt that. And I know the staff and the front office felt that.”
Ever since, La Russa has been appreciative and respectful of just how much first-rate work was done by Hahn and many others throughout a Sox rebuild that — as it turned out — teed up La Russa with an instant chance at major success. The manager has been open to input, too, more than once sitting with Hahn in social settings, scribbling out lineup ideas and asking what the GM thinks. La Russa has been generous with his time and in his determination to spread credit around.
“I realized — and this is my fault — that I didn’t expect him to be as humble or generous with sharing credit as he is,” Hahn says.
After La Russa passed McGraw, he expressed humility to the media but then, behind closed doors, went even deeper than that to all from the Sox who were gathered to mark the occasion. He thanked them. He praised players, coaches, trainers, administrators. He said he was nothing without all the people — in Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland and elsewhere — who had helped him.
“It wasn’t about him at all,” Hahn says. “Just sort of knowing him by reputation and from a distance, that would’ve surprised me a year ago, based on what I’d thought I knew about Tony La Russa. I was wrong.”
So many Sox have had come-to-Tony moments. Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito were among those La Russa called before spring training — leaders and influential voices he wanted to make sure would understand him going in.
“We had a long conversation, and I liked that,” Giolito says. “The first thing was, ‘Hey, I’m coming into your guys’ clubhouse, and I need to earn your respect.’ It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I’m in charge, and this is what we’re going to do, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3.’ I was expecting the conversation to go that way, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was a really pleasant surprise.”
Albert Pujols vouched for his former manager in a phone call with Abreu. Before an early-spring game against the Angels a few days later — Abreu out of the lineup, his start delayed because of COVID-19 — Pujols had a similar conversation with Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. It was all a very big deal.
For Yasmani Grandal, a catcher extraordinarily serious about his craft — potentially a manager, too — studying La Russa every day has been consistently revelatory.
“I’m always watching and trying to figure out the ‘why,’ ” Grandal says, “why we make certain moves, why we’re putting up a certain lineup, why a certain defensive shift, why we’re bringing this guy in. . . . Hopefully, if I’m ever in a situation like where he’s at, I’m able to make the same decisions that he’s made.”
And Guillen? He wanted the job after Rick Renteria was fired. Not getting a real crack at it made him “sad.” But after watching La Russa all season, Guillen is sold, too.
“To me, there wasn’t a better manager to hire, including myself,” he says. “The second man? Ozzie [expletive] Guillen. I don’t give a [expletive] what people think.”
No, coming back after not managing since 2011 wasn’t without fear for La Russa.
“But if I’d have said no because I was fearful of letting somebody down, of not being successful here, I would rather have learned that by trying than by wondering and regretting it later,” he says. “That’s good fear.”
More than concerns about whether he could succeed as a 76-year-old manager, though, La Russa had an incessant itch to get back in the dugout. He felt it the last few years as he worked in the Red Sox and Angels organizations. He talked about it often with dear friend Jocketty in the months before taking the Sox job. He talked about it many times through the years with old friend Reinsdorf, too.
“It killed him to be sitting in the stands or sitting in a suite watching the game,” Reinsdorf says. “That’s why I went to Rick and [executive vice president] Kenny [Williams] and said, ‘We should go after this guy.’ ”
But being an older manager — the oldest in the big leagues — is, unintendedly, at the heart of La Russa’s surge in popularity among Sox fans. Something about a grandfatherly fellow smiling at a player and hugging him just hits differently. And something about La Russa running as fast as his getaway sticks would take him to get from the dugout to a wounded player was utterly charming.
That’s what happened July 30 after Abreu was hit in the head by a pitch from the Indians’ James Karinchak, and it kind of changed everything. La Russa leapt from the dugout and sprinted toward his guy — who was, thankfully, OK — and that’s taking great liberties with both “leapt” and “sprinted.”
Memes were made of this. Someone on Twitter put the scene to the theme from “Chariots of Fire.”
“People laughed at it, but as a member of this team?” Giolito says. “For him to show that fire at his age when it comes to protecting us, when it comes to sticking up for us as players? You couldn’t ask for more from a manager. For him, at his age, to come running out with his hair on fire told everybody — players, fans, everybody — how much he cares.”
And another thing:
“Tony can laugh at that,” Hahn says. “I don’t know if many people really expected that from their perceptions of Tony La Russa. But the players have seen that side of him, and it’s served everyone real well.”
About eight years ago, La Russa met someone who turned out to be a very good friend. Swimmer Dara Torres had adopted a dog from La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in California, and the two connected. Torres had, at 41 — eight years after her last Olympic swim and recently a new mother — won three silver medals to run her Olympic medals total to 12. She even had written a book called “Age Is Just a Number.”
After the Sox clinched the division last week in Cleveland, Torres sent La Russa a five-word text:
“Age is just a number.”
That it is. It made a man who doesn’t like to talk about himself smile.