DETROIT — There was a hitch in Tony La Russa’s giddyup from the moment he took the job, at 76, as White Sox manager.
There was a Hinch, too.
All these months later, do people even remember the hilarious gaffe the Sox made in announcing the hiring of La Russa in an email to fans? The graphic that went out contained a photo of the smiling Hall of Fame skipper but with — oh, the embarrassment — the signature of A.J. Hinch underneath it.
Hinch — a 101-plus-game winner for three consecutive seasons with the Astros before getting fired for stealing signs — was the manager many Sox fans had wanted. He was an obvious candidate who more than met general manager Rick Hahn’s stated intention to find someone with recent championship experience.
Instead, Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf went back into business with an old friend. The fan base saw a young, championship-caliber roster on one hand and the long-retired La Russa on the other and reacted like the reasonable, kindhearted folks they are, which is to say they attacked La Russa on all fronts.
He’s too old!
He’s too out of touch!
He wouldn’t know a BABIP from a bat flip!
But La Russa is in charge, and that’s just the way it is. The Sox will clinch their first division title since 2008 eventually, and from there it’ll be all La Russa, all the time. Once the postseason arrives, the national media will feast on the story of his comeback. Locally, we’ll obsess over his every move, especially the ones that don’t work out well.
Then again, we’ve kind of been doing that all along.
La Russa and the Sox took a beating after it was discovered that he had gotten a DUI — his second — in February of last year and the Sox had hired him despite knowing all about it.
“I know I need to prove myself,” he said in his first public comments about the arrest, “and that’s both off and on the field.”
Many of us laid into La Russa after he ripped one of his players, Yermin Mercedes, for swinging on a 3-0 count and hitting a grand slam off a position player.
And there has been all sorts of low-grade frustration with La Russa and the Sox along the way since — even as the team nears 152 straight days in first place, which is where it will be at regular season’s end.
The Sox haven’t led by fewer than nine games since Aug. 1. What a romp! But not really. This has been a .500 team — 31-31 — in the second half. Lately, as in the cases of the first two games of this series against the Tigers, the Sox have appeared anything but locked in.
“Our execution is not what it has to be, in all phases,” La Russa said.
We can’t fairly decide how we feel about La Russa in this job until he succeeds or fails to move the undeniably capable, maddeningly inconsistent Sox forward. He hasn’t really done that yet, has he?
At the end, will we be chanting his name — something Sox fans actually did after La Russa’s most recent ejection — or will we be thinking, “Sheesh, Rick Renteria could’ve done that”?
Maybe neither. When we look back, a few years hence, at this remarriage between the Sox and La Russa, we might be thinking instead, “It should have been Hinch.”
Both managers came to their new jobs with baggage. Hinch’s Astros were scoundrels. But his Tigers are 34-27 in the second half, 3½ games better than the runaway Sox. More impressive than that, the Tigers are 27-22 this season against the American League teams currently in playoff position. They’re only 6-9 against the Sox, which makes them 21-13 against the others. And they have as good a chance as the Indians of finishing in second place.
And to think, this no-name gang was a last-place squad in 2020. In 2019, the Tigers were 47-114. Since 1962, only the 2003 Tigers (43-119) and 2018 Orioles (47-115) have been worse than that.
Hinch, 47, has made a giant impact.
“No surprise he’s doing well here,” La Russa said. “It’s a good indicator that they’ve improved as the season has gone on. That shows you the teaching that’s gone on, and the players have responded. I think he’s quality.”
La Russa, on the other hand? No doubt, he’s one of the best to ever do it.
In this comeback season, though? It’s still honestly hard to be sure.