If you ever need a reminder of how fickle life in baseball can be, look back on the weekend White Sox manager Tony La Russa just experienced.
On Saturday, he was questioned for his decision to have Danny Mendick sacrifice against struggling Tigers reliever Derek Holland with runners on first and second. The bunt didn’t work in what turned out to be a 4-3 Sox loss. It was more fuel to criticize La Russa, who also has been scrutinized for his handling of Yermin Mercedes’ home run on a 3-0 count in the ninth inning of a blowout win over the Twins and for not knowing a pitcher doesn’t have to be the designated runner on base to start extra innings.
Before Sunday’s game, La Russa again defended the Mendick decision, saying he didn’t think it was a wasted out because a good bunt would have resulted in getting runners to second and third with Tim Anderson and Nick Madrigal due up in a one-run game.
“Trust your gut — you don’t cover your butt,” he said. “You cover your butt with some of these decisions, and you get beat and you’ll never know if you are good enough.”
Now fast-forward to after the game. With the Sox’ 3-0 victory over the Tigers, La Russa passed John McGraw for second all-time in wins by a manager with 2,764 — another achievement for a Hall of Famer with three World Series rings.
La Russa downplayed his role in those victories while crediting his coaches and players. He chalked up the accomplishment to being fortunate to work in good organizations and having a family that backed him.
“It feels very similar there, toward the end, to getting into Coopers-town,” La Russa said. “It’s not just personal.”
Even as the Sox have raced out to a 36-23 start and a four-game lead over the Indians in the American League Central, despite losing two-thirds of their starting outfield, the questions about La Russa haven’t quieted. And it remains to be seen whether his moves — some of them running counter to modern baseball thought — will work when the Sox are in their biggest games.
But at the same time, La Russa has a gravitas that few managers can match. He also has won more games than anyone besides Connie Mack, whose all-time mark of 3,731 wins is likely well out of reach.
As the Sox continue to pace the division, La Russa will remain a big story. On some days, it will involve controversial decisions, and on others, like Sunday, it will involve La Russa tipping his cap to fans at Guaranteed Rate Field and talking about how his mentors influenced his career.
“It’s a players’ game and the staffs’ — that’s what we have here now,” La Russa said. “I just commented to the guys, we have a team that wants it, and we’ll see how good we can be the rest of the way. But we have a staff that’s dedicated to helping them entertain the fans with competition and hopefully enough wins.”
After an emotional Sunday — which included La Russa having coach Daryl Boston put on the 1962 World War II movie “The Longest Day” in the locker room on the 77th anniversary of D-Day — La Russa was glad to have a day off Monday.
Now it’s back to the grind.
“I keep looking at Toronto, and the week after that, we’ve got Tampa Bay and Houston,” he said. “So there’s no relaxation or taking anything for granted. It’s just getting ready to compete, see who’s good enough. Simple.”