How La Russa could succeed (or not) with Sox

February 25th, 2021

The last time Tony La Russa managed a Major League Baseball game, Fernando Tatis Jr. hadn’t signed a $340 million contract; he was merely 11 years old. The last time Tony La Russa managed a Major League Baseball game, Ryan Braun won the MVP. (Matt Kemp finished second!) The last time Tony La Russa managed a Major League Baseball game, Mike Trout had just finished a discouraging first 40 games with the Angels, hitting .220 and leaving Angels fans wondering what all the fuss was supposed to be about.

It has been a while, is what I’m saying.

There are few stories more compelling this season than Tony La Russa returning to the dugout. He’s not just managing any team, after all: He’s managing the Chicago White Sox, one of the youngest, most exciting, most diverse teams in the sport. He’s a 76-year-old man entering a baseball world so dramatically different than it was in 2011 that it might as well be science fiction. How is this going to work? How is this going to all play out?

Many media members, particularly the younger ones, believe the game has passed La Russa by. But your old-timey baseball people, the ones who have watched La Russa manage for 40 years now, would put nothing past him.

So let’s take a look at the arguments both for and against La Russa in 2021.

1) He, uh, wins a lot of games.
This is really important to start with! La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history, and he’ll be second if he’s still the manager by June. (He’s 35 behind John McGraw. He’s not catching Connie Mack unless he lives to be 120, though.) Having watched La Russa every day for 16 years in St. Louis, the best thing about cheering for a team that La Russa manages is that he takes losses harder than anyone does. He will look for any advantage, push every game into a fight-to-the-death competition and defend his players against opponents like a junkyard dog. You do not win 2,728 games without a pretty good idea of what you’re doing. Baseball teams like to win games. La Russa wins games. This doesn’t have to be so complicated.

2) He has shown willingness to go with the times.
For all the talk of La Russa being stuck in his ways, his career doesn’t really track that theory. He was famous for being an innovator with the White Sox and A’s, particularly with how he used his bullpens, but as he went along as manager of the Cardinals, he began to evolve into a more analytically based thinking. For all his clashes with former Cardinals exec Jeff Luhnow, he wasn’t stubborn about it; he embraced many aspects of analytical thinking, including defensive positioning and bullpen management. And while La Russa may have pioneered the idea of clear, set bullpen roles, he wasn’t wedded to them. In fact, his moves during the 2011 playoffs, in which starting pitchers were routinely pulled in the fourth inning and every matchup advantage was exploited, looks more like '21 baseball than anything else in '11 did. The guy wants to win. He’ll do what it takes to win.

And for what it’s worth: White Sox players seem to like him so far.

"The drive to want to win, he has that,” said shortstop Tim Anderson, the kind of young, confident player many perceived might have an issue with La Russa. “I'm behind him 110 percent. That's the ultimate goal, is to win and to win a World Series here. I'm behind him."

3) The White Sox needed a push.
This is the most debatable on this list, but it’s clearly what White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had in mind bringing in La Russa. Many observers routinely questioned the decisions of former manager Rick Renteria, and there was a sense that the team, as its talent increased and its young players evolved, was outgrowing Renteria. This is a team that wants to win right now, and has the talent to do so. But the White Sox needed a manager with the proven experience of taking talented teams to their highest level. It has been a decade, but La Russa has done that. Look at that Anderson quote. He wasn’t saying that about Renteria. The White Sox are a team that believe it can win a World Series right now. So it went out and got a guy who has won three. That may be the simplest explanation of all.

1) There might be a generation gap.
La Russa has had, in the past, an abrasive personality that rubbed players the wrong way, and that was back in an age when players did not necessarily feel as empowered as they do now. He took back his past comments about athlete activism and protest in his opening press conference, but they will still come up all season. The White Sox are young and vibrant and brash. Is La Russa going to be supportive of all that?

2) He needs to re-establish himself.
The day before La Russa was hired as the White Sox manager, he’d received a DUI citation for an incident last February in Arizona. This was in fact La Russa’s second DUI in the last 15 years; he got one during Cardinals training camp in 2007. La Russa is certainly not the first baseball figure to receive a DUI citation, but it’s a bad sign for a man trying to re-establish his authority as a manager in the game and win over a skeptical public. La Russa has said the right things, aware that he to prove himself “off the field” as well. To put it mildly, among many in the baseball world, he has a tall hill to climb.

3) The game has passed him by -- “manager” isn’t even the same job it used to be.
What’s the job of a manager these days? In a world of expanded front offices and advanced analytics, many managers see their job less as Bill Belichick-esque head dictator and more like a conduit between the front office and the players and the media -- more like, well, a middle manager. The manager may make out the lineup (sometimes) but the big decisions are often made by the front office. That has never been how La Russa works. He has shared power in the past, particularly late in his St. Louis tenure, but never comfortably. (In retrospect, this clash may reflect positively on La Russa.) La Russa thinks of himself as the decider, the final word on what happens with his team. But is that how managers work anymore? And also: Some observers worried La Russa was getting too old back in 2011; remember the Lance Lynn incident in the World Series? He is now 10 years older than that.