SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox’s Tony La Russa is 77 and he is looking forward to spring training with the eager anticipation of a first-year manager.
“We don’t want to forget what we did well,” he said Tuesday while watching an Arizona Fall League game at Sloan Park. “As we played, you could see some warts. The good thing is they’ll all be fixable. The players are excited. The staff is excited. The front office is excited. They’re anxious to help where they can.”
La Russa is excited, too.
“I only know one way and that is give 100% every day,” he said. “Starting with spring training.”
Last spring training, La Russa expected to have a “why am I doing this?” moment when the first sticky issue came up but it never occurred. Not in the spring, not during the season.
“I never had that one time. That’s amazing,” he said. “Showed I knew I was lucky to be there, I was fired up and I felt as much pressure as ever. The team had a chance, I was given a chance and I know what those [demanding] fans are like.”
La Russa said he knows the American League Central, which the Sox won by 13 games, will be improved. Then he smiled and held it with a look of confidence.
“But so will we,” he said.
When he went to camp last February, La Russa was the newly hired manager, lured out of retirement to take the Sox to the next level after they had lost the wild-card series to the Athletics under Rick Renteria. It was a getting-to-know-you period for the manager, some of his coaching staff and players.
Having a second spring training, this time knowing in detail every strength and weakness of his team — which lost to the AL champion Astros in four games in the ALDS — will be a “night and day” difference, he said.
“Last year was zero relationship-wise, I had to earn their respect and trust,” La Russa said. “Most of the time, watched guys throw and hit, didn’t get into the drills because we didn’t know. Now we can be specific.
“Spring training is critically important at the major-league level. If you don’t get fundamentals down . . . it’s critical that you establish A, B, C and D with however elements there are. You establish them and repeat them to where they become automatic.”
La Russa said his coaching staff will return.
“And that’s good,” he said, “that kind of stability. We had a good thing going. It wasn’t accidental that those guys played their [butts] off and part of it was the staff.”
Which will have a list of things to cover come spring.
“There’s all kinds of stuff,” La Russa said. “We can make better pitches. Have better at-bats. I’m not going to give you a scouting report but there are big things, little things and things in the middle. We’ll have a list, and we’ll prioritize. It was obvious to everybody we can do better defending the steal.”
The Sox have to decide whether to bring back second baseman Cesar Hernandez, pick up reliever Craig Kimbrel’s option for next season and how to address right field. Per the latter, converted first basemen Gavin Sheets and Andrew Vaughn showed they “can’t be ignored,” La Russa said.
Starter Carlos Rodon and reliever Ryan Tepera are free agents, and Michael Kopech “is going to camp determined to make it as a starter” after pitching in relief, La Russa said.
So there is prioritization to be made and needs to be met that will be addressed by general manager Rick Hahn, who can be expected to add to the roster via free agency and/or trades.
“We’ve got to,” La Russa said. “We’ve already been talking a little bit. We’ve got some decisions to make.”
One thing already clear to La Russa is knowing he made the right decision to manage again after being out of the dugout since 2011.
“I didn’t retire because I was out of gas, there were other issues,” he said. “But I had plenty left. I don’t play. I just sit there and make some decisions. Our clubhouse really impressed me, getting ready to play for six winning months. Now the next thing is, we go forward and understand that we get better. The only way we get better is to work at it.”