Disappointing season leaves White Sox at crossroads

Should the team stick with Tony La Russa or move on from the Hall of Fame manager? And will fans tolerate another rebuild?

SHARE Disappointing season leaves White Sox at crossroads
White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, left, talks with manager Tony La Russa.

Manager Tony La Russa’s future is one of many questions facing chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and White Sox leadership.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

It was supposed to be a medical issue. And it should be a medical issue.

But as we’ve learned with the White Sox for several decades, no issue is simple.

In most cases, the health of — and concern for — manager Tony La Russa would supersede any development, especially given that he has been away from the Sox for the last four weeks and won’t return for the rest of the 2022 season.

The Sox’ disclosure Saturday, with La Russa’s consent, that he underwent ‘‘additional testing and medical procedures’’ speaks to the seriousness of his health after his doctors directed him not to return.

A return wouldn’t have mattered at this point, as the Guardians put their American League Central title pursuit in overdrive and flattened the Sox and Twins.

And, unfortunately for the Sox, not winning a second consecutive division title they were expected to win comes with consequences.

Or should it?

Bruce Jenkins, the award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, once described the Sox as ‘‘the wackiest ship in the Navy.’’ That was nearly 20 years ago, and the phrase still applies.

The Sox never led the AL Central by more than two games this season and fell out of first for good April 21. Injuries zapped much of their power, but bloated contracts awarded several years ago to Yasmani Grandal and Yoan Moncada challenge their efforts to retool the roster.

With new rules instituted in 2023 that will reward speed and athleticism, the Sox will be hard-pressed to adjust unless they trade at least one of their big-ticket players.

They must have the same buy-in from their players that the Guardians displayed in seizing the division title convincingly.

‘‘As for as young a group as it is, we haven’t done a lot of babysitting, which I appreciate,’’ manager Terry Francona said before the Guardians swept the Sox in a three-game series last week at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Sox haven’t won a playoff series since capturing the 2005 World Series under Ken Williams, who retooled the roster the previous winter with deeper starting pitching and a much-needed balance of speed and power.

Rick Hahn, who took over the general-manager duties after the 2012 season, declined to assess the 2022 season until close to its completion.

Nevertheless, this season represented a regression that infuriated a passionate fan base that already had tolerated a tedious rebuild and had every right to expect no less than a third consecutive playoff berth.

Hahn has praised acting manager Miguel Cairo, the coaches and the players for adjusting on short notice, but he stopped short of elaborating on the future of the team or the dugout leadership next season.

Which brings us back to La Russa.

La Russa was nine years removed from the dugout when he accepted an invitation to return to Chicago with the sole mission of winning a World Series title.

That crusade remains as firm as ever, according to two sources who were familiar with La Russa’s thinking that led him to return in an effort to complete the mission that fell short when the Orioles eliminated the Sox in the 1983 AL Championship Series.

La Russa likely wouldn’t have returned for any team or owner but Jerry Reinsdorf, who regretted allowing then-GM Ken ‘‘Hawk’’ Harrelson to fire La Russa in 1986.

La Russa is under contract for one more year to achieve his singular goal for his boss, who attended what was thought to be La Russa’s final game as manager for the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series.

But this is a different landscape. The Sox’ debacle this season put the franchise at a crossroads. Season-ticket holders have a right to feel a little leery after being misled by a team that didn’t hit home runs, failed to run the bases with precision and didn’t field and throw with a sense of urgency.

La Russa thrives on a challenge, occasionally reminding media members when he thinks they’re wrong in forecasting the team’s fortunes or in not praising a player or achievement to his liking.

Some of his in-game decisions, however, have clouded his otherwise-shiny Hall of Fame plaque. He remains adamant he has made the correct in-game choices, proving his intensity hasn’t wavered.

But intensity can go only so far. Then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda suffered a minor heart attack midway through the 1996 season and told reporters he was medically cleared to return.

Those heath concerns and the wish to spend more time with his family, however, convinced Lasorda to retire from the dugout at 68 and to serve as a GM and adviser until his death in 2021.

Meanwhile, La Russa admitted he couldn’t replicate the intensity of preparing for and managing a game during his stints as an executive with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox after leaving the Cardinals. Perhaps the time away from the Sox will allow him to assess his future.

‘‘It was good because you don’t want anybody to feel something dangerous to their life,’’ Sox designated hitter Eloy Jimenez told reporters after learning La Russa wouldn’t return in 2022.

La Russa’s doctors — and the Sox — will have the biggest say in his future. The roster needs changing, even in the face of some potentially immovable contracts.

And if La Russa isn’t medically cleared to return in 2023, Reinsdorf and Co. must decide whether to continue their World Series-or-bust mission or embark on another rebuild that would alienate fans who waited patiently for the first youth movement to crystallize into a world championship.

But it all starts with La Russa’s health and well-being.

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