GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tony La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history, a three-time World Series winner and a Hall of Famer.
He also is quick to remind that he’s a three-time World Series loser.
“And we won only one game in the entire three series,” he said of the Dodgers defeating the Athletics four games to one in 1988, the Reds sweeping the A’s in 1990 and the Red Sox sweeping the Cardinals in 2004. “There are some bad memories there that keep me alive and haunted.”
In La Russa’s disdain for losing lies the competitive fire that still rages, even at age 76.
“The passion, the energy, the commitment, it’s still there,” said Joe McEwing, who played for La Russa as a Cardinals infielder in 1998-99 and is now La Russa’s third-base coach, a holdover from fired manager Rick Renteria’s staff. “The time he puts into attention to every detail of everything that goes on in spring training, it’s remarkable.”
La Russa’s desire to beat his opponent hasn’t wavered, he said, and he’s one of the best ever at doing it, which is why Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, in a stunning move, hired him to manage a team constructed to win now.
Reinsdorf and La Russa remain friends, long after La Russa was fired by the Sox in 1986, when Ken Harrelson was the general manager. La Russa went on to craft that Hall of Fame career, and Reinsdorf called losing him his greatest regret.
When he chose La Russa to run his team, the harshest critics viewed it as cronyism.
Suggest that to La Russa at your own risk.
“The disrespect to the person that they’re commenting about is a very serious comment to make, and you have to have a lot of substance and proof to make that and they don’t,” La Russa said. “Jerry Reinsdorf, he’s got trophies and a World Series ring. He loves the game. We’ve been close ever since I got fired. But it’s disrespectful and insulting to say somebody like Jerry, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, is going to put a personal relationship anywhere close to the priority that is the team’s chance to win. It’s an insult, and it’s disrespectful. You have to know Jerry better.”
Adding fuel to the fire from those objecting to La Russa’s hire was the revelation that he had been arrested for driving under the influence a year ago in Phoenix, which, as it turned out, Reinsdorf knew about.
La Russa pleaded guilty to a reckless-driving charge in December, and he knows he’s finished if there’s a third strike. He has been candid about his remorse.
“They’re both inexcusable mistakes, and I pound myself for making a mistake,” La Russa said. “And the lesson is, if you drink, you don’t drive. And it’s not going to happen again.”
La Russa also spoke to the notion that, because of his bond with Reinsdorf and his résumé, he would leapfrog general manager Rick Hahn and vice president Ken Williams in the normal chain of command below the chairman.
“I’ll make it as clear as possible. Jerry is the owner,” La Russa said. “He’s going to treat his field manager like he treats Kenny the vice president or Rick the general manager or Jeremy the assistant general manager or [director of player development] Chris [Getz], and that is, he’s going to hold us all accountable.
“The chain of command is this — and I take respect and accountability, professionally, at the highest level I possibly can. My bosses are Kenny, Rick, Jeremy, Chris, all those guys. The way I handle it is, I am accountable to the players. I try to get the best I can from the players, and the people I answer to are the people I report to directly in the front office. If Jerry has a question, I’m sure he’ll ask me.”
Attention on the list of concerns seems to have subsided in the weeks since La Russa’s court date as it shifts mostly to spring training. In the first week of camp, La Russa generally was informative and accessible with media, even engaging in his own way, a trait he wasn’t exactly known for before.
He seemed like a kid with new toys, looking at a talented assemblage of young players to work with.
Players, to a man, spoke favorably sharing their first impressions —even shortstop Tim Anderson, who had seemed skeptical at first. After all, Anderson is a poster child for today’s player and La Russa the poster grandfather for yesterday’s manager.
“I won’t change my style, the way I play, for Tony,” Anderson said shortly after La Russa was hired. “That won’t happen. I will continue to be me. I always have, and I always will be. We’ll see what happens, I guess, if I do a bat flip.”
“We’ll see” was a common refrain.
Before the first week of full spring training had passed, Anderson was throwing his full support behind La Russa.
“Just to see what page he’s on is definitely awesome,” Anderson said.“ Just have conversations with him, very motivating. The drive to want to win, he has that. I’m behind him 110%. That’s the ultimate goal, is to win and to win a World Series here. I’m behind him.”
As you’d expect, players are taking notes on the new boss.
“Very, very cerebral,” outfielder Adam Engel said. “Very, very methodical. It seems like every step he takes, there’s a reason why he takes it. There’s a way that he takes it for a reason. That’s kind of the vibe that I’m getting from him. It seems like he’s thought through everything. He’s got a reason for everything. And he tries to communicate that with us, too.
“Another really cool thing about Tony is there’s no question marks behind what he’s doing. He’s going to tell you why he’s doing it. If it seems different, he’s going to tell you why. He’s incredibly smart, incredibly wise, a ton of experience. You can just tell that nothing surprises him, it seems like.”
La Russa’s shaping of a family atmosphere is also going over well, pitcher Lucas Giolito said. So is a coaching staff that isn’t exclusively old-school, with fresh faces such as Giolito’s high school coach, 37-year-old Ethan Katz.
“Having that balance of younger, older, old-school, new-school, you’ve got a little bit of analytics mixed in there, you’ve got kind of the old-school mentality, as well,” Giolito said. “I just think it’s a really good combo for this day and age of baseball. I’m looking forward to being a part of it and learning more.”
But it won’t always be warm and fuzzy. Players are hereby warned to stay on their toes with La Russa, and his tough love, at the helm.
“He would walk up and down the bench,” McEwing said, recalling his days as a player, “and if he thought you weren’t paying attention or watching the game, he’d ask, ‘What was that second pitch on so and so?’ And you’d be like, ‘It was a breaking ball,’ and he goes, ‘OK, you’re right. I’m glad you’re locked in.’ Just little things to know the detail that goes into every pitch, the preparation and how to go about seeing every aspect of a ballgame. Not just pitching side, defensive side, hitting side, baserunning side. All of it.”
To know that La Russa was nervous addressing the team as a group for the first time is to know he’s still into it, that this really matters to him.
“When you love what you’re doing, you’re going to be emotional,” he said.
“It’s what I love. Being in there, being part of a coaching staff. There is a lot of talent. I’ve been really impressed with player development, those guys are outstanding. I’m serious. There is an excellent coaching staff and player development, and the quality of players, I mean, it’s fun. You feel that healthy kind of pressure.”
With so much achieved, though, you wonder how badly La Russa really wants to win another championship. He answers it this way: The past is in his rearview mirror.
“The day I signed with the White Sox, I made a commitment to myself, and I committed to this team. There isn’t anything about what is in my past career that I’m going to think about or refer to unless there is something valuable to what we’re trying to do. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the next one. And the healthiest attitude our team can have is to look at the 2020 October appearance and confirm that we have the talent to win and compete and contend. But they have to put it past them, aside from what they can learn from it. It will not help us this year. It’s all about what’s next.”