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To sway opinion, White Sox’ Tony La Russa needed to look sharp early. He hasn’t.

The sample size is too small to say the manager is in over his head. But public perception doesn’t care about that.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa criticized rookie Yermin Mercedes for swinging on a 3-0 count Monday with the Sox leading the Twins 15-4.
White Sox manager Tony La Russa has come under fire for some of his in-game decisions this season.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

“Bad optics’’ is business-speak for anything that negatively affects the public perception of a business or a person. We used to say, “Who told you those pants were a good idea?” Now we just say, “Bad optics, Mr. Smithers.’’

Whatever you want to call Tony La Russa’s foggy, meandering journey to admitting he didn’t know a new Major League Baseball rule, it wasn’t good for him or the White Sox.

It happened during a recent postgame Zoom news conference, and it was painful viewing — the thin, reedy voice, the faraway look, the overall befuddlement. At a minimum, the Sox have a perception problem with their manager, which means they have a problem with their manager. There’s no use trying to distinguish between the two.

Let’s not make this into a discussion of whether people on the other side of 75 are capable of doing jobs as big and taxing as La Russa’s. Let’s not because it’s unfair to paint with a broad brush, and let’s not because I don’t want to get hit over the head with a barrage of broad brushes. Let’s limit this to the 76-year-old La Russa’s ability to manage the Sox.

Is he capable of a job that has brought many younger men to their knees?

The sample size is too small to say he definitively can’t. Anybody can have several bad moments over a 30-game span. The issue for La Russa and the Sox is that there was always going to be very little room for error in the public-perception category. It’s why it hasn’t taken long for perception to start galloping toward reality: If it doesn’t look like the skipper knows what he’s doing, maybe it’s because he doesn’t. If he looks doddering, maybe it’s because he is.

Unfair? Fair or unfair doesn’t matter here. What matters is our new friend “optics.’’ There’s no rush to judgment. There’s only judgment.

In a 1-0 loss to the Reds on Wednesday, La Russa didn’t know he could have used someone other than closer Liam Hendriks as a 10th-inning baserunner. The new extra-inning rule states that the spot in the order that makes the last out of the previous inning becomes the designated runner at second base — unless the person in that spot had been the pitcher. It means that La Russa could have used Jose Abreu instead of Hendriks, who had been a baserunner just once before in his 11-year career. After the game, a reporter had to inform the manager of that.

It’s incriminating that nobody on La Russa’s staff had filled him in. But the coaching staff isn’t standing in the spotlight. La Russa is. So there he was Wednesday, very much alone, looking like someone who calls for a ride at 3 a.m. but can’t describe where he is.

“I’ll re-read that situation,” he said to The Athletic’s James Fegan, who told the manager of the rule during the news conference. “I’m guessing you know the rules better. Now I know.”

Boy, oh, boy.

There have been several other occasions that the manager has goofed up. In a game in late April, he kept starter Lucas Giolito in for too long, and a 2-1 lead over the last-place Tigers turned into a 5-2 loss. Afterward, Giolito said he was tired. La Russa admitted he wasn’t aware of it. He did something similar with Matt Foster earlier in the month.

But Wednesday’s mistake was the most public and damaging.

La Russa needed to start the season with synapses blazing and a youthful energy belying his age. He hasn’t come close to that standard. I don’t know if he can climb out of the hole he has dug for himself. But if the temperature of the city is any indication, not only are few people willing to extend him a hand, many are grabbing for shovels.

All this over a few bad-look moments? Yes. Public perception matters in a multibillion-dollar industry. In this case, it matters more because it involves the third-oldest manager in baseball history. It matters when that manager hasn’t been in a dugout since 2011.

One thing we can say with certainty is that Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf cares about public perception about as much as he cares about 14th century French poetry. But what if La Russa continues to struggle, dragging down a talented team with him? What’s larger, Reinsdorf’s desire for another World Series title or his loyalty to close friends? I’m not sure I want to find out the answer.

Plenty of people will disagree with my contention that it’s too early to judge La Russa. Plenty of Sox fans believe that a Hall of Fame manager shouldn’t be making the mistakes he already has made.

But we’ll know soon enough if his problems are passing or here to stay. Too much is at stake. The Sox are a talented team with aspirations of a big postseason push. A manager shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of that. That’s not perception. That’s reality.