Everything about White Sox and Tony La Russa has been wrong, but getting him right is all that matters
The manager will undergo tests for a heart issue. Stepping away from baseball for the last month of the season should be his only priority.
Whatever you think of Tony La Russa, whatever hard feelings you might harbor against him, you have to admit he’s had a rough couple of years. Some of it has been his own doing — a DUI arrest before the White Sox hired him in October 2020 — and some of it has been a team effort — the club’s underachieving 2022.
But now he’s stepping away from the team indefinitely to undergo heart tests in Arizona, according to a USA Today report. That news came Wednesday afternoon, a day after the Sox announced that La Russa wouldn’t be in the dugout for that night’s game against the Royals because of unspecified medical reasons. We don’t have many details, but it’s safe to say that whatever has happened to him is serious enough to take a single-minded manager away from the game he loves.
He’s absorbed an enormous amount of abuse from fans and media, and it started the moment the Sox hired him. He was 76, too old and too set in his ways, many of us thought. He wouldn’t be able to relate to young players, we said. He’d forgotten more about baseball than most other people would ever know, we said, and we focused on the forgetting part. He led the team to the playoffs last season, but that was quickly forgotten this season with the team’s frustrating dance with mediocrity and with his sometimes odd decision-making.
So, yes, it has been a rough two years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s taken its toll on the physical and mental health of a man in his eighth decade on the planet.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why La Russa was willing to put himself through several deserts worth of heat when the Sox hired him. So I feel comfortable suggesting that the best thing for him now, with a month left in the regular season, is to step away and tend to his health. A team that has danced around .500 the entire season is not worth illness or a shortened life.
Now, that approach is convenient for those of us who thought La Russa’s hiring was a mistake from the beginning and for those of us who say this underperforming team is a fireable offense. But anyone who has been around the Sox for any length of time knows that team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf wasn’t going to fire La Russa this year. Reinsdorf has stated many times that the worst decision of his career in baseball was allowing then-general manager Hawk Harrelson to dismiss La Russa in 1986. La Russa went on to win three World Series, one with Oakland and two with St. Louis.
So a La Russa firing wasn’t going to happen again. That doesn’t mean Reinsdorf refuses to see the need for a change. It means that Reinsdorf would never fire his friend twice. But La Russa stepping aside for the last month of the season would take care of two problems at the same time: his health and a team in desperate need of a boost.
At the heart of this is a person. We forget that. We see a guy who has mucked up what was supposed to be a good thing, a talented Sox team. We see an old guy and a dye job, and we say that somebody has it out for the fan base. That somebody is Reinsdorf, just ask us, and soon enough, we’re off again on our indignation tour.
But if we strip it down and just see the person, then we understand that the most important thing is that La Russa needs to get himself right.
Is this the last we’ll see of him in a Sox uniform? I wouldn’t be surprised either way, but I do think that what the manager is going through now is an opportunity for everyone, especially for him. Nothing is worth the abuse he’s taken. Deep down, he has to know that. He’s massively competitive. He told reporters the other day that the best way to deal with all the recent losing is with anger. I’m not sure his heart would agree with that.
This is no time for stubbornness. Reinsdorf made a mistake when he hired La Russa in 2020. No one will ever convince him of that, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Surely the chairman knows that the right thing to do is to finish out the season with someone else in the dugout. I wouldn’t leave that decision to La Russa, an ultra-proud man. On his own, he might not see that his health is more important than trying to salvage a season.
Reinsdorf has a second chance to do the right thing. Take a hack at it, Jerry.