The Chicago White Sox are bringing back one of their own. The team made a bold move Thursday, announcing the hiring of former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
The team did not announce the length of the 76-year-old La Russa’s contract.
Tony La Russa, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, the third-winningest manager in baseball history, a three-time World Series champion and a four-time winner of the Manager of the Year Award, has been named the new manager of the Chicago White Sox. pic.twitter.com/RKP24rleHP
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) October 29, 2020
La Russa returns to the White Sox after managing the team from 1979 to 1986. La Russa compiled a 522-510 record with the team. After La Russa was fired by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson in 1986, La Russa went on to manage the Oakland Athletics and the Cardinals. He’s won three World Series championships as a manager, won the Manager of the Year award four times and is already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s the second time a Hall of Fame manager has ever returned to the dugout.
A correction here, in case you didn't see the quote tweet:
Tony La Russa will be the 13th individual to manage a team AFTER having been selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame
He'll be the second to do so after being selected to the HOF as a *manager* joining Connie Mack
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 29, 2020
How will Tony La Russa mesh with the White Sox?
The La Russa hiring comes with some significant questions. While La Russa has proven to be an effective manager over his career, he hasn’t held that role since 2011. The game has changed drastically since then. The opener exists, starting pitchers are pulled from starts earlier and the stolen base, hit and run and sacrifice bunt have all seen their usage decline. La Russa has remained around the game since leaving the Cardinals in 2011, mostly in front office and executive roles. It’s possible he’s fully aware and plans to implement current strategies with the White Sox, but fans won’t know until La Russa starts managing games that matter.
On top of that, La Russa will be tasked with connecting to a young, diverse White Sox roster. The team’s biggest and most marketable star is shortstop Tim Anderson — who is Black. Anderson was among the most vocal players to speak out on racial injustice and police brutality in the United States during the 2020 MLB season. The White Sox had six players kneel in protest on opening day. La Russa has made comments in the past in which he said he would make players who protest “sit inside the clubhouse” for disrespecting the flag.
A lot has changed since La Russa made those comments in 2016, and it’s possible he’s altered his view on the subject. But if La Russa hasn’t, it could put White Sox players in an uncomfortable and unfair position.
While those players will have to do their best to make it work, others may shy away from playing for La Russa. Free agent pitcher Marcus Stroman liked a couple tweets calling out La Russa’s comments about protesting, suggesting Stroman’s not a fan of how La Russa handled that situation. With the La Russa hiring, the White Sox may have already lost out on a free agent starter they desperately need.
Can Tony La Russa lead the White Sox to the World Series championship?
La Russa has been away from the game for quite some time, so it’s tough to project how he’ll fare as a manager in 2021. During his final season with the Cardinals in 2011, La Russa was actually pretty conservative on the bases, not asking the team to steal many bags. He called for 48 sacrifice bunts that season, which ranked as the third most in MLB in 2011. By comparison, the Cleveland Indians led the league in sacrifice bunts in 2019 with 38.
The only other area of concern in La Russa’s 2011 managerial tactics that stands out is that La Russa didn’t make that many pitching changes, finishing the year with 3.9 pitchers used per game. Every full-time manager used more pitchers per game in 2019. That shouldn’t be taken as a damning indictment of La Russa’s managerial style, it just highlights how much the game has changed since he’s been gone.
The White Sox should be a good team even if La Russa is unable to modernize his tactics or prevent a clubhouse mutiny. There’s enough talent on the roster to overcome a manager who can’t adapt to today’s game.
But, as the White Sox learned in 2020, poor managerial decisions are magnified exponentially in a short postseason series. If La Russa can’t lead the White Sox deep into the playoffs, the team risks wasting multiple seasons of its promising, young core.
Given how long it took the White Sox to get to this point, that would be a catastrophic outcome for the organization and its fans.
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