Despite HOF Credentials, Tony La Russa Is a Baffling Hire for Young White Sox

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 29, 2020

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2014, file photo, former Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa stands with his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque before the second baseball game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers in Chicago. La Russa, the Hall of Famer who won a World Series championship with the Oakland Athletics and two more with the St. Louis Cardinals, is returning to manage the Chicago White Sox 34 years after they fired him, the team announced Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Marton, File)
Matt Marton/Associated Press

The Chicago White Sox's new manager is the most experienced, most accomplished and most decorated person they could have chosen for the job.

He might still be wrong for it.

The whispers became reality Thursday when the White Sox announced they've hired Tony La Russa to replace former manager Rick Renteria, who they let go on October 12. Though the terms haven't yet been reported, La Russa has signed a multiyear contract.

       

La Russa's Resume

  • White Sox manager: 1979-1986
  • Oakland Athletics manager: 1986-1995
  • St. Louis Cardinals Manager: 1996-2011
  • 4-time Manager of the Year
  • 6-time pennant winner
  • 3-time World Series champion
  • 2,728 career wins (third all-time)
  • Elected into Hall of Fame in 2014

      

What La Russa Does (and Might Not) Bring to the Table

Following several years of rebuilding, the White Sox broke through in 2020. By way of a 35-25 run through the shortened regular season, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

However, they lasted only three games in the postseason, wherein they were knocked out of the Wild Card Round by the A's. The third of those games reflected poorly on Renteria, who was a tad too aggressive with his pitching maneuvers.

Now in comes the 76-year-old La Russa. As White Sox general manager Rick Hahn explained in a statement, he hopes the veteran skipper's experience is just what the team needs:

“We are extremely excited about the future of this team. As we showed in 2020, this is a young, talented club that we expect to only grow better and better in the coming years. Adding in a Hall of Fame manager who is recognized as being one of the best in the history of the game, we are a step closer to our goal of bringing White Sox fans another championship."

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Because La Russa hasn't managed since skippering the Cardinals to a second championship in six years back in 2011, there is some dust on his accomplishments at this point. It also suffices to say that baseball has changed a lot over the last nine years.

And yet La Russa wasn't so successful in his day simply because he always had great players. He was an innovator, particularly with bullpen management. It isn't a reach to suggest that he's the originator of the modern trend of using a parade of relievers to arrange and exploit favorable matchups. 

It also isn't as though La Russa has been out of the loop over since 2011. He worked as an executive for Major League Baseball and in front offices with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox (who won the World Series in 2018) and Los Angeles Angels.

The trouble is, La Russa apparently wasn't the first choice of the White Sox's baseball operations department. According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, owner Jerry Reinsdorf made the decision, seemingly to the chagrin of said department:

It isn't hard to imagine this becoming a source of tension down the line.

Rather than with Reinsdorf, La Russa will be working directly with the club's front office in a way that might not give him his preferred level of autonomy. As all modern managers do, La Russa will almost certainly have to take his cues from assorted number crunchers.

As Bruce Bochy, who will one day join La Russa in Cooperstown, told Jayson Stark of The Athletic in 2019: "The game has changed. It's driven a lot by the front office and by all the information that's given to the manager. The manager—he's not the one who's driving the bus as much as he used to be."

Now more than ever, the most important skill a manager can have is the ability to communicate with his players. Egos must be handled with care, and data-heavy game plans must be put in plain English (or Spanish, etc.). If done well, everyone will buy in and everything will go according to plan.

On its own, La Russa's nine-year break from managing could be a big enough challenge in the communication department. And then there's how his own personality will mesh with those of his players.

John Raoux/Associated Press

As soon as the news of La Russa's hiring was announced, his takes on players flaunting baseball's unwritten rules and on protests against racial injustice quickly came to light. In short: He wasn't a fan of Colin Kaepernick in 2016, and he didn't approve of Fernando Tatis Jr.'s otherwise crowd-pleasing 3-0 grand slam from this August.

However, La Russa backed off both takes Thursday, per B/R's Scott Miller:

Whether his views have actually changed or he simply knows how to read a room, La Russa will have to maintain his newfound enlightenment if he expects to command respect in Chicago's clubhouse.

This is a team whose hitters and pitchers are predominantly 20-somethings, and whose make is decidedly multicultural and multiracial. The White Sox's biggest star is shortstop Tim Anderson, a bat-flipping, socially conscious Black man who's likened himself to "today's Jackie Robinson" with regard to the responsibility he feels to "change the game."

Anderson and the White Sox are a fitting reflection of Major League Baseball as a whole. The league is younger and more diverse than it used to be, and it became more socially conscious in 2020 than it had been arguably since the days of Robinson.

It shouldn't be on White Sox players to adjust to La Russa. He should have to adjust to them, which he already seems to understand.

If he goes on to actually conquer his learning curve in practice, the White Sox should continue their rise as a powerhouse contender. As it is, their young core already includes Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning and Garrett Crochet. Before long, hard-throwing right-hander Michael Kopech and sweet-swinging first baseman Andrew Vaughn will also join.

There is, however, the question of why Reinsdorf insisted on hiring a manager who would have any sort of learning curve. Especially given that AJ Hinch, who checks all of the boxes for a modern manager despite his tainted run with the Houston Astros between 2015 and 2019, was reportedly in the running for the job.

There's also the question of how the White Sox will proceed if La Russa does prove to be a bad fit. Perhaps they would just let him go. But since he's a Hall of Famer who the owner hand-picked and is now on a multiyear contract, that might not be so simple.

Ultimately, it's a hope-for-the-best situation. If it doesn't pan out, the White Sox will be scrambling to salvage whatever's left of their contention window.

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.