After 34 years, Tony La Russa is back as the Chicago White Sox manager.
The news raises a host of questions: Does hiring the 76-year-old Hall of Famer — who last managed in 2011 when he led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title — make sense for Chicago? How might it work? What could go wrong? How are those around baseball — and fans in Chicago — reacting to it?
ESPN baseball writers Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield break down the move.
Why would the White Sox choose Tony La Russa?
Schoenfield: Given the lack of precedent here — not just La Russa’s age, which makes him just the third manager along with Connie Mack (who owned the team) and Jack McKeon to manage at 75 years or older, but his decade removed from managing — it certainly is a shocking hire, even if La Russa is a Hall of Famer. Still, there’s a feeling that owner Jerry Reinsdorf views this as fixing a blunder he made way back in 1986, when he allowed general manager Hawk Harrelson — yes, THAT Hawk Harrelson — to fire La Russa. Reinsdorf has called it his biggest mistake as White Sox owner, as La Russa went on to win six pennants and three World Series with the A’s and Cardinals.
Are there baseball reasons? That’s harder to understand, as the trend for a long time now has been to hire younger managers who are more in tune with the rapidly changing analytics in the game. But maybe a little old-school approach is what the White Sox feel they need to get to that next level, because the talent is there to compete for a World Series title.
Rogers: It’s almost an ironic hiring. After the season, they admitted they’ve been “insular” in some of their thinking and hirings in the past. Considering La Russa has had a relationship with Reinsdorf since the first time he managed the White Sox in the ’80s, the move still screams of an in-house feel to it. So the point is, they know him. They know what he’s capable of, considering he’s won more games than all but two other managers in history, but the key thing they know about him is he’s smart and adaptable. What they don’t know is what a decade away from managing will mean. No one can know that until he’s in the dugout.
What is La Russa really like as a manager compared to other managers in today’s game?
Schoenfield: There will be a lot of discussion of La Russa’s ability to adapt to how much the game has evolved since 2011. There are a lot of factors in play here: leveraging analytics for things like pitcher development, dealing with players in this new age of activism, bat flipping, attracting free agents, the increasing role of manager as PR agent for the team (never La Russa’s strong suit). It doesn’t help that his short stint as chief baseball officer for the Diamondbacks included the disastrous hire of Dave Stewart as general manager, with the pair publicly being derisive of analytics. (At a time when other teams were starting to really ramp up their analytics departments, La Russa hired a 66-year-old former veterinarian as his director of analytics.)
On the other hand, maybe that sells short La Russa’s role as an innovator during his long career. While with the A’s, he and GM Sandy Alderson were heavy into the numbers in the 1980s, way before most people in baseball. He turned Dennis Eckersley into what some would call the first “modern” closer, a guy mostly saved for the ninth inning. Maybe that’s been a little overstated, but when Eck became a full-time closer in 1988 he did pitch 72 innings over 60 games and saved 45 of them. As La Russa writes in “One Last Strike,” he and pitching coach Dave Duncan asked a simple question: “How many guys do you think we have as good as Eick who can pitch in the ninth inning?” The answer was none, thus the idea to have Eckersley available for as many ninth innings as possible.
Later on with the Cardinals he experimented with hitting pitchers eighth, in order to get Mark McGwire more RBI opportunities. When he managed the Cardinals to the 2011 World Series title, he was also an early innovator in starting pitcher usage. With Adam Wainwright injured that year, Chris Carpenter was really the team’s only workhorse and reliable starter. In 18 playoff games that year, Cardinals starters averaged just 5.1 innings per start and five times were pulled before completing five innings even though the starter had allowed three runs or fewer.
Heck, we just saw 71-year-old Dusty Baker run out a bullpen game in the playoffs. People can adapt — and it will certainly be interesting to see how La Russa does adjust from the way he did things even 10 years ago.
What has La Russa been doing since he managed last?
Schoenfield: It’s important to note that he’s been around the game since he retired after that 2011 World Series. He oversaw baseball operations for the Diamondbacks from early in the 2014 season through the 2017 season, with that final season ending in a playoff berth as a wild card. He then worked as front office advisor with the Angels and Red Sox. As he alluded to in his media conference on Thursday, he knows the amount of pregame preparation is much more involved now, but La Russa was always regarded as one of the most prepared managers in the game (and a manager has a lot more help these days, with more coaches, so a lot of the work gets passed down to the coaching staff). What are those around baseball saying?
Rogers: People in baseball are shocked by the move, but of those contacted no one would definitively say they don’t believe La Russa can do the job. He has too much on his resume to dismiss the idea out of hand. The big question is connecting with the modern-day player. One executive said any manager taking a decade off would be facing that question.
Another executive opined that La Russa is smart enough to fit in with the current era of baseball. In other words, even if you consider him an old-school manager, he won’t be telling Tim Anderson to lighten up on the bat flips but he will stress playing the game the right way. La Russa used his relievers early and often, so his style might fit in with the analytical nature of this era in baseball. He was a matchup guy before that was a thing.
One former reliever who played under La Russa quipped that the Sox bullpen better not get comfortable in their roles because La Russa will change them on a daily basis. Or at least the La Russa he played for would. No one can know what current-day Tony will bring to the table. And that was the other overriding opinion about the hire: It’s uncharted territory so there isn’t much history to make a prediction on.
Why could the hiring work?
Rogers: La Russa was a lawyer before becoming a manager. He’s smart and has already managed in both leagues in several different eras. And one huge key is he hasn’t been on a beach for the past 10 years. He’s been in three distinctly different organizations in the Angels, Red Sox and Diamondbacks. If it wasn’t for the gap in time in managing, the move wouldn’t be looked upon with such trepidation. Besides, the Sox look great on paper. Mostly, their manager will need to get out of the way and let them play. How hard is that?
Schoenfield: Hey, Jack McKeon was 72 when he managed the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title. I think the interesting dynamic here is that most of these White Sox players won’t know anything about La Russa. But La Russa stressed his history and success of building relationships during his long tenure as a manager before and that aspect of the job is probably more important than any X’s and O’s. Building that trust with Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert is more important for La Russa than helping them with analytics or their swing. There are others to help in that area.
Why could this hiring not work?
Rogers: Isn’t it obvious? He’s 76, which leads to physical questions of doing the job more than mental. It’s a grind. And that’s without even considering another potential COVID-19 season. And the disconnect that can occur between the modern player and this manager is real. La Russa basically has sat out for one generation of players. There are a bunch of roadblocks that could get in the way, with the biggest one being his relationship with a young Sox team.
Schoenfield: Right. Remember in the 2011 World Series in Game 5 when the Cardinals made two odd choices with the bullpen that made no sense? After the game, La Russa blamed the noise level in the park, saying that bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist had misheard him (in one case, meaning Jason Motte didn’t get warmed up, and in another that lefty Marc Rzepczynski had to stay in to pitch to lefty masher Mike Napoli). When Rzepczynski was finally replaced by Lance Lynn, La Russa was expecting Motte. “I saw Lynn, and I went, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’ ” La Russa said after the game, which the Cardinals lost.
There was a lot of speculation at the time about what really happened — and that maybe La Russa had a brain fart at the wrong moment. Maybe it was just too loud. “We can’t even hear the phone ring, it’s so tucked back in the tunnel. You can’t even see the pitcher warming up. It’s not a very good setup,” Lynn said after the game.
Anyway, the point here is that this is where La Russa was then, and he was only 66 years old. At 76, the watch for any miscues will be even more intense and critical.
What’s the reaction in Chicago?
Rogers: Since his name was initially floated, there has been a total pushback in all forms toward even the idea of La Russa becoming the next White Sox manager. On social media, sports radio and within the media. From callers to columnists, the idea has been panned. It’s not any better now that he’s been announced.