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Is age more than just a number? We’re about to find out with the White Sox’ Tony La Russa

It’s impossible to ignore that he’s 76 and hasn’t managed since 2011.

New White Sox manager Tony La Russa will be leading a team for the first time in a decade.
New White Sox manager Tony La Russa will be leading a team for the first time in a decade.

The last three times I’ve written about White Sox manager Tony La Russa, I’ve mentioned that he’s 76. So make that four in a row.

I’ve always used his age in context, usually along the lines of, “Will the 76-year-old La Russa be able to relate well to young players?” It’s not germane to anything if a journalist writes, “La Russa, 76, said Liam Hendriks is an excellent closer.’’

But I did go through a period of self-examination after the third time I pointed out the number of years the manager has walked on the planet.

Does his age remain an issue the more times it shows up in print or on a computer screen? Does it become a bigger issue with each mention? Am I attaching some dark meaning to advanced age just by dutifully chronicling La Russa’s? Is writing “La Russa, 76, …’’ any different than writing, “La Russa, who likes to dress up as a clown in the privacy of his own home, ...”?

In reality, aren’t I saying, “This guy is way too old to be managing the Chicago White Sox!”?

Then I told myself to snap out of it.

Age is important in sports. We measure everything by numbers, and age is one of those measurements. We lauded Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady not for winning the Super Bowl this season but for winning it at 43. At no point did anyone say it was in bad taste to talk about his age.

We look at a worn-down Ben Roethlisberger and can’t help but think he’s finished. We agree that it’s because of the hits he has taken as the Steelers quarterback but also that, by turning 39 Tuesday, he’s getting up there.

It’s not just sports. We praise Mick Jagger for still being able to dance like a crazed rooster at 77. And we marvel at the human body’s resilience when we say that Keith Richards, against all odds, remains alive at 77.

Everything is relative, and that’s why context needs to be attached to age. The truth is, we don’t know how La Russa is going to deal with the rigors of an extremely stressful job. I get tired just thinking about the travel that comes with 81 road games. Working nights, trying to eat healthy and getting enough sleep is hard enough for a 56-year-old manager.

A 76-year-old manager doesn’t have to know every pop-culture reference his players make, but it’s important that he embraces the differences between him and them. That’s one of the things that will be under the microscope as La Russa manages shortstop Tim Anderson, who, like a lot of players, flips his bat in celebration after connecting on what he is sure is a home run. That type of look-at-me behavior hasn’t always sat well with La Russa, who last year criticized the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. for hitting a grand slam on a 3-0 count during a blowout victory.

“It’s just not sportsmanlike,’’ he told the Washington Post.

But at his introductory press conference with the Sox, La Russa praised Anderson’s passion, including his bat flips.

“If I see it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s displaying the kind of emotion you want,’’ he said.

Lack of activity might be more of an issue for La Russa than age. He hasn’t managed since winning the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals. It’s more than fair to ask about mental rust.

Discussing all of this is not ageism. Ageism is depriving someone of an opportunity because of their age. It’s discriminating against someone because they fall in a particular age group. It’s stereotyping someone based on age.

To not discuss it is ridiculous. To talk about it all the time is ridiculous, too, unless La Russa makes a habit of ducking out of afternoon games for dinner at 4:30 p.m. Age jokes: cheap and easy. Mostly cheap.

We’ll be paying attention to how La Russa holds up this season, not to the point of distraction and not because no one his age should be managing. When the Sox open their season against the Angels on April 1, he’ll become the third-oldest manager in Major League Baseball history, behind Connie Mack (87) and Jack McKeon (80). Mack’s final World Series title came when he was 67. McKeon’s lone title came when he was 72. Presumably, there’s a reason for the dearth of “mature’’ managers throughout history.

If the Sox win a lot of games, it will go a long way toward making the age discussion go away. Showing vigor, even when he’s not feeling vigorous, will be important for La Russa.

His age will be an issue until it’s not.