CHICAGO — The Chicago White Sox hired Tony La Russa to manage their baseball team in 2020.
It was odd to consider when La Russa’s name first was floated as a candidate — almost immediately after Rick Renteria was fired earlier this month — and it was even more shocking when the team made it official Thursday afternoon.
La Russa, who at 76 will become just the third manager in MLB history aged 75 or older, is a Hall of Famer with three World Series championships on his resume. But he managed his first game in 1979 and his most recent in 2011. He has been absent from the dugout for about an entire generation of players.
Analytics, meanwhile, have transformed baseball strategy into a completely different game since he left managing nine years ago. And the last time he was in a decision-making role for a team, he was, rather publicly, anti-information while leading the Arizona Diamondbacks to an average of 71 wins and zero playoff appearances during his three seasons as chief baseball officer.
Maybe he can adapt, but hiring La Russa to manage a baseball team for the 2021 season is strange.
But he feels like an especially wrong fit for this baseball team.
The Sox core includes Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. It’s a young, diverse roster that plays on the South Side and has endeared itself with fans for its swagger, charisma and flouting of baseball conventions.
La Russa, one of the bastions of old-school baseball, is none of those things, and his hiring feels like an intentional rejection of it all.
Six players — Jose Abreu, Lucas Giolito, Edwin Encarnacion, Anderson, Jimenez and Robert — joined together to kneel during the national anthem on opening day as part of this summer’s wave of athlete protests across nearly every sport. This summer was supposed to be a chance for baseball to reckon with its history, to confront the reasons why the game is declining in communities of color, especially as Black players have started to feel more comfortable speaking about the way baseball has not always felt welcoming to them.
La Russa has long been one of the gatekeepers of that culture.
In 2016, he went on a national radio show and then spoke to Sports Illustrated questioning Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality.
“I really distrust Kaepernick’s sincerity,” La Russa told “The Dan Le Batard Show.” “I was there in the Bay Area when he first was a star, a real star. I never once saw him do anything but promote himself.”
When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones opened up about his feelings as a Black baseball player, once again there was La Russa to tell him why, actually, he was also wrong: “When he says it’s a white, like, elitist kind of sport, I mean, how much wronger can he be?” La Russa again told Le Batard.
During his introductory video conference Thursday, La Russa mostly backed off his previous comments. Well, as long as he could be sure of the sincerity.
“If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing and identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side,” La Russa said. “And as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere — and what I’m learning more and more with the Players Alliance (a nonprofit made up of current and former Black players) and especially with the White Sox, when your protests actually have action-oriented results, the way that you’re going to impact to make things better — I’m all for it.”
La Russa made no effort to reckon with or apologize for his role in any of this or explain whether he has spent time considering the experiences of Black people in this country or in baseball.
Instead, he proceeded to list Black players that played for him and talked about racist bones — always good things for your manager to clear up on Day One.
When La Russa was asked about his thoughts on bat flips and players celebrating, he also backed off his previous opposition to them. Well, again, as long as he could be ensured of their sincerity.
Once again, La Russa gets to play gatekeeper. He gets to determine what is allowed and what is too far. And if La Russa deems something not to be sincere, or not sincere enough for his liking, then he’ll reserve the right to disqualify it.
As recently as August, La Russa was arguing in the Washington Post about unwritten rules and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. being too good at baseball by hitting a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch despite having a seven-run lead.
“It’s just not sportsmanlike,” La Russa told the Post. “The way it was described to me was, it’s team against team. That’s what our sport is, with these very talented individuals matching up. What it isn’t, though, is an exhibition of your talents. You swing 3-0 in that game, and you’re up by seven, you’re trying to drive in more runs.”
That doesn’t sound like someone whose views have evolved much. Compare that reaction to Anderson’s.
“There’s no need to apologize,” Anderson said. “You hit a home run, he hit a grand slam. What are you apologizing for? The thing I found weird is that his manager didn’t back him up. And he did it in public. Even if you don’t back me up, don’t do it in public. We’ll talk about it behind closed doors.
“(Tatis) plays with a lot of energy, and I like it, I like to see it. That’s the only way the game’s going to change — allowing (players) to be themselves. If the pitchers don’t like it, don’t throw it in the zone.”
Maybe we will see a different version of La Russa in the Sox dugout than the one who last managed. The impact of baseball managers on the game usually is a bit overstated, and with such a strong core, maybe the Sox are well-positioned for the next few years anyway.
But Black and Latino managers rarely have been afforded such chances. Renteria led the Sox to their first playoff berth in 12 seasons but was fired for someone else to take the team to the next level. Ozzie Guillen reportedly wanted the job but was quickly disqualified from the running. Of the few candidates reportedly connected to the job, it doesn’t appear any of them were people of color.
Say, for some reason, the Sox had really fond memories of La Russa’s last series as a manager, the 2011 World Series (I guess they ignored how in Game 5 he sent in the wrong pitcher). Still, they were looking at that series for a manager who still was active in the game, already had expressed a desire to manage again and who has worked with some of the game’s best young players. Ron Washington was right there.
Instead, Jerry Reinsdorf decided to call La Russa, who admitted he was surprised when he got the call, and enticed his friend into managing again.
The Sox had the most attractive managerial opening and could have had their pick of the field to see who wanted to lead one of the youngest and most talented rosters in baseball.
Instead, they made a pick so baffling it made the guy who was suspended for an entire season and fired for his role in an electronic sign-stealing scheme seem like the more digestible choice.
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