It was Tony La Russa’s 34th season as a manager, but it was also his first.
His first season back after a nine-year hiatus following a retirement in 2011 that came after he pocketed his third World Series championship ring.
It was a year-plus ripe with controversy, starting with his surprising, stunning hire on Oct. 29, 2020, which preceded the revelation that chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, his longtime friend, knew La Russa had been arrested on DUI charges in February of that year but hired him anyway.
It was a rough restart. And La Russa would remain a hot topic during the season, and not just because he has the second-most managerial wins of all time and a Hall of Fame ring — jewelry not meant for people in uniform.
La Russa was initially slow reacting to replay challenge decisions, was exposed for not knowing a rule that surfaced in an extra-inning loss in Cincinnati in May, admitted to leaving a pitcher in too long and was embroiled in an old-school versus new-school back-and-forth about baseball’s unwritten rules when he called out rookie Yermin Mercedes for missing a sign and swatting a home run on a 3-0 count.
La Russa, who will manage at age 77 in his second year of his second coming in 2022, was — no shocker here — on the old-school side of that debate. He made no excuses for the missteps but was anything but a failure as a manager, though, guiding a well-equipped Sox team to a 93-69 record and the American League Central title but falling short of doing what Reinsdorf hired him to do — lead the White Sox beyond one round of the playoffs.
A 3-1 ALDS loss to the more experienced and just plain better Astros in October ended the season, leaving La Russa in a grumpy, combative mood as he was shown the door from the postseason.
“Just leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and in my gut,” La Russa said.
La Russa acknowledged that the better team won but said Sox star Jose Abreu was hit intentionally by Astros reliever Kendall Graveman.
“There’s a character shortage there that they should answer for,” he said. “It is stupid, too.”
La Russa will admit he’s a sore loser. His day depends on the outcome of the game. Ask him before one how he’s doing and he’ll tell you to ask him after the game.
“Losing sucks. I don’t think people understand how it feels,” he has said.
Those who observed La Russa on a daily basis in 2021, at 76, came to the understanding that it still feels awful to him.
“When he loses, he’s miserable, and when they win, he’s the happiest guy,” said former Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who played for La Russa during the 1980s, managed against him in the 2000s and watched him closely last season as a pregame and postgame host on Sox television broadcasts.
Everything hinges on a day’s win-or-lose outcome for La Russa, even in his advanced years. A month after the season ended, a cooled-down La Russa sat behind the last row of seats behind home plate at Salt River Fields, watching Sox prospects at an Arizona Fall League game. He was much more relaxed, and already looking forward to his second season with his team as he reflected on the first.
“There was a lot of pressure last year — a lot of negatives,” he told the Sun-Times. “I felt pressure with the A’s job [when he managed the Athletics after Sox GM Ken Harrelson fired him] and going to the Cardinals [whom he managed from 1996 to 2011]. But you embrace it — you make pressure your friend.”
As he looks ahead, La Russa will feel every bit the same weight in 2022. Expectations for the Sox, in the prime year of their competitive window, will be high. He still has a lot of people to win over, even after a winning season.
“I was taught not to let anybody down for not doing your best,” he said. “When you manage, you have the owner, front office, fans, teammates . . . I’ll do my best. That’s good enough. It’s corny and simple, but it’s true.”
There is no reason to believe La Russa’s best can’t be better. At spring training last year, he was an observer, watching players he was unfamiliar with, laying eyes on many of them for the first time.
“He didn’t know anybody on that ballclub,” Guillen said. “He went into spring training naked. To me, this year, he will manage a lot better because he knows his players and he will get the best out of his players.”
Off to Oakland and St. Louis
La Russa’s first spring training was in 1980 with the Sox in Sarasota, Florida. He had been promoted from manager at the organization’s Triple-A Iowa Oaks club to manage the Sox when Don Kessinger resigned with a 46-60 record during the 1979 season, three weeks after Disco Demolition Night. La Russa, at 34 the youngest manager in the major leagues, guided the Sox to a 27-27 record down the stretch.
Unbeknownst to La Russa at the time, general manager Roland Hemond stayed away from camp for the first 10 days, demonstrating confidence in the young manager and allowing him to gain his own. Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn bought the Sox the following year, decided to keep La Russa on as manager, and by 1983, La Russa won the first of four Manager of the Year awards after leading the Sox to the AL West Division championship.
A Hall of Fame career was off the ground, and it couldn’t be sidetracked by general manager Ken Harrelson’s regretful firing of La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan in 1986 after the Sox got off to a 26-38 start.
“I’ve known Tony since 1962 when he joined us in [Class A] Binghamton in the Eastern League when he signed for a big bonus,” said Harrelson, who slugged 38 home runs for the Triplets that season while La Russa — an infielder who, to this day, jokes about his undistinguished playing career — was batting .186 in 12 games. “He was more towards a man as a 17-year-old than most guys. He was an impressive guy. Not so much as a player, but he carried himself really well. I always liked Tony, as most guys did.
“When I was GM and he was managing the club, I didn’t fire Tony because he was a bad manager. What I fired him for is going to the grave with me — and him, probably. I’ll never say anything about it. I just thought a change had to be made.”
The Athletics hired La Russa and Duncan three weeks later — Harrelson said he put in a good word to the A’s after letting La Russa go — and the A’s went 45-34 with that pairing after a 31-52 start. La Russa managed the A’s to World Series appearances in 1988, ’89 and ’90, defeating the Giants in ’89.
In La Russa’s tenure in St. Louis, he won seven division titles and made three World Series appearances, winning in 2006 and 2011.
After he served in various roles with MLB, the Angels, Red Sox and Diamondbacks from 2012 to 2020, Reinsdorf hired him to replace Rick Renteria in the dugout after Renteria’s 2020 team lost to the Athletics in the wild-card series following the 60-game abbreviated season due to COVID.
La Russa was 76 but insisted he had plenty left to give.
“I didn’t retire because I was out of gas,” he said. “There were other issues. But I had plenty left to go. I don’t play. I just sit there and make some decisions.”
The fuel gauge shows more than half-full.
“Dunc would say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ ” La Russa said. “You play every game like it’s the last game of your life, the urgency of the moment. If you take that attitude and that’s who you become, it’s really not that tough. You look in the mirror.”
“The basics of baseball hasn’t changed”
Thanks to support from players such as shortstop Tim Anderson, whose reservations about La Russa when he was hired subsided after he got to know him, the concerns that La Russa wouldn’t relate to the modern player became a non-story as the 2021 season unfolded. La Russa won his players over with his knowledge of the game and attention to detail but with constant communication, whether by conversations or text messages. It wasn’t unusual to see players sharing light moments with him in the dugout before games. He preached team as family, and players, noticing how he cared about the 29th man on the team as much as Anderson and Abreu, bought in.
“I can honestly say he exceeded my expectations as a person,” a Sox staffer said. “Something that really struck me was how caring a person he is.”
Aside from Mercedes, La Russa rarely, if at all, criticized players in the media. That’s one thing Guillen would like to see change.
“Obviously, it was his first year with the club and he wanted to be wanted and loved by the players,” Guillen said. “This year, I don’t want to say he has to be the Tony of the ’80s or the ’90s because he never will be that type of guy, but I believe he has to be harder on the players. Not [bad-mouthing] them, just get the best out of them. Players don’t have to like Tony. Don’t think about what the players will say about the decisions he has to make.
“Nowadays, you can’t be Earl Weaver or Billy Martin or Sparky Anderson or Jimmy Leyland — you have to be [more sensitive] like, ‘OK, guys, come on, let’s go.’ But he has to show people who is the boss. I don’t think he has anything to lose if players like him or not. He wants to win. If he’s a badass, what are you going to do? He’s a Hall of Famer, he has maybe a couple more years to manage and go back home. If they don’t like you, [screw] it, you get paid to win games.”
La Russa will have much the same personnel to deal with this season, with the same coaching staff and a full year’s worth of knowledge on players’ strengths, tendencies, weaknesses, quirks and personality traits.
While in a getting-to-know-you stage, La Russa did well by believing rookie first baseman Andrew Vaughn could learn to play the outfield on the fly. And by mixing and matching players into the right spots, he got production, in varying degrees, from outfielders such as Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton after injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert shelved the young stars for months.
As a veteran AL Central scout said, the 70-something version of La Russa “is slower” than the previous version, “and he doesn’t have the same coaches he relied on for decades.”
“Everyone questions his present versus his past, including fans,” the scout said. “But they have a really good team, and even if he’s not up to par, they can still win. Winning washes away other issues.”
But as Guillen said, La Russa wasn’t an old manager sitting on the end of the bench dozing off in 2021. He is still engaged to the fullest. Coaches and staff cite his attention to detail.
In part because of Sox injury woes — Anderson missed 39 games, Robert was limited to 68, Jimenez got hurt in spring training and played 55, and Yasmani Grandal played in 93 — La Russa received Manager of the Year consideration, finishing sixth in balloting.
“Our clubhouse really impressed me, getting ready to play for six winning months,” he said. “Now the next thing is we go forward and understand that we get better. The only way we get better is to work at it.”
Guillen had hoped to be considered for the job when Renteria was fired, but not getting it was easier to accept when he learned La Russa was the choice. Guillen approved of the hire “a thousand percent.”
“You want to bring the best manager in the history of the game,” Guillen said. “People said, ‘Aw, he’s too old’ or this or that, but the basics of baseball hasn’t changed. I believe this year will be way easier for him.”
La Russa would never say “easy.” The regular season is a grind.
“The reality is the hardest thing to do is win the division — it’s the hardest by a lot,” La Russa said in November. “Trials and tribulations, ups and down. But the most exciting thing is the playoffs, a short series that can be determined by one pitch or play. We talked about it after the season: Be fair to your team and just do your best. If your best isn’t good enough, then it’s, ‘How do we make our best better?’ ’’
And will that be enough?
Ask him when the season is over.