Somehow, against all odds, both these things are true:
A) The White Sox made it through an entire season with Tony La Russa as their manager.
B) The world did not end.
If you had asked me before the 2021 season whether life as we knew it was over because of the La Russa hiring, I would have answered C) Absolutely! And I wasn’t alone. The move seemed crazy to a large number of people who thought a 76-year-old senior citizen (yes, we went there) — one who hadn’t managed in nine years — was a terrible idea.
I’m not here to tell you that La Russa was a rousing success last season. I’m here to tell you that . . . you know, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe the decision to hire him wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe he still can manage a little bit.
But, boy, we were not a fun group to be around, pre-enlightenment. La Russa was the soup that had repelled us as a child, the one we had vowed never, ever to like. That’s where many of us were emotionally during spring training. Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had lured La Russa out of retirement, hoping to make amends for what he considered his biggest mistake: letting general manager Hawk Harrelson fire La Russa during the 1986 season. Was this Major League Baseball or Major League Conscience Cleaning?
Guess what? The soup turned out to be palatable. If that sounds like faint praise, understand how far some of us had to travel to get there.
After a Sox loss early in the 2021 season, it took a sportswriter to inform La Russa of a new rule that would have allowed him to use someone other than closer Liam Hendriks as a 10th-inning baserunner. It was a horrible look for someone who needed to prove to the fan base that he still had it.
Two weeks later, he criticized rookie Yermin Mercedes for ignoring a take sign on a 3-0 count and hitting a home run with the Sox leading the Twins 15-4 in the ninth inning.
“I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game,’ “ La Russa said. “No, he doesn’t. He plays the game of major-league baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents. And he’s got to respect the signs.”
Mercedes’ shiny stats eventually plummeted, and the Sox demoted him to Triple-A Charlotte five weeks later. In July, he wrote on Instagram that he was taking a leave from baseball but returned to the Knights the next day. No one can say definitively that La Russa’s criticism negatively affected Mercedes’ confidence. The stats might suggest that, but it doesn’t make it true. Critics wondered whether the incident would lead to a revolt in the Sox’ clubhouse. It didn’t. The players seemed to like the manager.
La Russa is old-school at a time when old-school is not considered a good thing to be. In terms of wins and losses, his love of tradition didn’t seem to matter a whole lot last season. That might chap the hide of those who consider themselves modern thinkers, but it doesn’t play a role in whether he can do the job. And the truth is that he was into analytics before many in the analytics crowd were even born.
Despite all the craziness of 2021, despite the pandemic and the controversies, he guided his club to the playoffs. Please don’t try to argue that a young Sox team won despite its manager. Young teams, by definition, need guidance. La Russa guided. You can criticize him for the way the Sox bombed in the postseason (a 3-1 American League Division Series loss to the Astros), but you can’t criticize him for getting his team there. Remember, lots of us predicted regular-season disaster precisely because an out-of-touch manager would be leading them. Instead, he shepherded the team through a rash of injuries, which robbed the Sox of the services of Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez for long stretches. They won 93 games and the AL Central title.
What did we learn about La Russa last season? That he still knows a ton about baseball. And that, for better or worse, he’s going to do Tony things.
We didn’t see much of the boorish behavior he exhibited while he was in St. Louis. He was mostly gracious with the media, answering questions without a snarl and actually showing a pleasant side. He tried. He could have been unapologetically Tony, but he tried not to be. I didn’t think he had that in him.
The fervor is still there. When Sox star Jose Abreu was hit by a pitch in July, La Russa ran out of the dugout and confronted Indians catcher Roberto Perez. Actually, it was more of a shuffle than a run. He was ridiculed, again, but the players couldn’t help but notice, again, that he cared.
He’s not the perfect manager, but he’s not the debacle lots of us anticipated him being. I don’t know how 2022 will play out for the Sox, but I expect the planet will continue to orbit the sun, no matter what their 77-year-old manager does.