Tony La Russa Came Back Because the ‘Opportunity Is Real’
Hallowed names caromed off the walls of the coaches' room one recent morning at the Chicago White Sox’ camp in Glendale, Ariz. The former slugger Jim Thome was in town, and as coaches prepared the day’s schedule, Thome rattled off a list of the greatest players ever managed by a fellow Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa.
Thome is a special assistant for the White Sox now, but La Russa is much more than an adviser. At 76 years old, he is back as manager of the team that fired him in 1986, before any players on the current 40-man roster were born.
La Russa has managed boldface names like Tom Seaver and Carlton Fisk, Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols. Yet as Thome recited them, La Russa and the coaches came to a tantalizing conclusion: The players down the hall just might fit with the best of his best.
“Those lineups compare to anybody’s, ever,” La Russa said by phone last week. “So I think what’s exciting here is that when we put our talent, the depth of our talent, alongside those, you can see why the opportunity is real.”
The White Sox went 35-25 last season, their best record by winning percentage since 2005, when they won their only championship since Shoeless Joe Jackson roamed the outfield. Though they lost to Oakland in the first playoff round, the White Sox had tangible proof that their reconstruction was sound.
By trading starter Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton (who has since returned) in December 2016 and another starter, Jose Quintana, the next summer, the White Sox acquired third baseman Yoan Moncada, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and starter Lucas Giolito. Free agency brought starter Dallas Keuchel, catcher Yasmani Grandal and closer Liam Hendricks.
The reigning winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, first baseman Jose Abreu, arrived from Cuba in 2013, four years before center fielder Luis Robert. The middle infielders, Tim Anderson and Nick Madrigal, were first-round picks who combined to hit .328 last season.
In other words, the White Sox searched everywhere for players — but no one shops in Cooperstown for a manager. The decision by the owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who replaced Rick Renteria with La Russa in October, was a first in baseball history: Nobody had ever come out of retirement to manage after having been elected to the Hall of Fame.
“When I was hired, there were questions and criticisms, and I thought they were all legitimate,” said La Russa, who will be the third-oldest manager in history. “The one that I thought was not was that I had been away from the game — and the opposite was true. I was actually in a better position doing what I did than if I had been managing.”
La Russa never really retired. He left the dugout after winning his third World Series title, for the 2011 Cardinals, but then worked for the commissioner’s office, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels. La Russa regularly traveled with teams and visited minor league affiliates, keeping detailed notes on a scorecard as he watched from a box above.
His return to managing, though, was in some ways as curious as his start with the White Sox. When the maverick owner Bill Veeck promoted La Russa from the Class AAA job — on Aug. 2, 1979, the day the Yankees’ Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash — La Russa stood out as the majors’ youngest manager, at 34, and soon became the first in decades with a law degree.
Though La Russa had played in the majors and managed in the minors, his youth and education made him a novelty. A year into his tenure, he appeared on “To Tell The Truth,” where a panel of game-show royalty — Kitty Carlisle, Rita Moreno, Nipsey Russell and Dick Van Patten — could not guess the real La Russa. He won $500.
La Russa, wrote The Associated Press in 1979, was “a refreshing departure from the normal run of baseball managers who play a game of musical chairs, bouncing from one club to another.”
La Russa would bounce only twice, from the White Sox to Oakland in 1986, and then to St. Louis 10 years later. This time, though, he was widely cast as a caricature: a close friend of Reinsdorf’s, dismissive of analytics, dismayed by bat flips and suspicious of player activism, which he had questioned in 2016.
More seriously, he also faced a legal challenge: an arrest last February for driving under the influence, the same charge to which he pleaded guilty in 2007. To resolve the more recent case, La Russa pleaded guilty in December to reckless driving and was sentenced to a day of home detention, a $1,400 fine and 20 hours of community service. He also completed a 20-hour alcohol counseling course.
The White Sox, in a statement, said “there cannot be a third strike,” and La Russa publicly apologized. He said he had not directly raised the issue with players at spring training.
“I spoke generally about the challenges that I had faced coming into the club,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily specific. Nobody asked me, but they knew. I made a mistake.”
The thrust of his message, La Russa said, was his common ground with the players. The White Sox have plenty of talent, but now must live up to their promise. La Russa has plenty of victories — 2,728, third on the career list — but now must live up to his track record.
“They’ve got a lot to prove, and I have a lot to prove, the coaching staff has a lot to prove,” La Russa said. “Let’s see if we can prove it.”
None of La Russa’s coaches have worked on his staff before, but he managed three of them — Daryl Boston, Miguel Cairo and Joe McEwing, the team’s longest-tenured coach. McEwing, who played for La Russa as a rookie in St. Louis, said La Russa still emphasizes the finer points of preparation.
“I sit there and write notes every day,” McEwing said. “His passion is still there, his energy is still there. He wants to win every minute of the day. Through the scheduling of spring training to every aspect of the game that day, he’s breaking it down to win.”
Another coach, the analytics coordinator Shelley Duncan, will have an important role in helping him do so. Duncan’s father, Dave, was La Russa’s longtime pitching coach and remains a close confidant. The family-like bond with the younger Duncan, 41, should help La Russa trust the data that has saturated the sport since he last managed.
To Duncan, though, La Russa has always been a step ahead.
“As soon as this analytic era popped up, all I’ve ever tried to do is find ways to justify everything Dad and Tony did — and it’s all there,” Duncan said. “The stuff that they taught is stuff that the analytic people have been preaching for years. It’s funny; they’ve done all of that through their experience and knowledge, their willingness to take risks. They look at things deep.”
Using an opener instead of a traditional starter? La Russa tried it for a week or so with the Oakland Athletics in July 1993. With the Cardinals, LaRussa regularly batted his pitcher eighth. Dave Duncan emphasized sinkers to counteract hitters’ bat paths; when hitters adjusted their swings, Shelley Duncan said, his father predicted the modern trend of high fastballs.
In his final flourish with St. Louis, La Russa used his relievers for more innings than his starters in the 2011 National League Championship Series. He gave a rookie, Lance Lynn, a team-high 10 appearances across the N.L.C.S. and the World Series.
“Everyone wants to talk about, ‘Oh, it’s the new age now’ — Tony did it without all that stuff,” said Lynn, now a starter with the White Sox. “He used to just do things off gut — or so he used to say; I think he researched things way more than he would let anyone know. But now he’s got everything at his disposal.”
As for handling the clubhouse, La Russa has always been effusive in support of his players. Already during this spring training, he has compared Abreu to Pujols and Anderson to Mookie Betts. Communicating across cultures comes naturally; the White Sox have several Latin American stars, and La Russa has spoken Spanish all his life.
Some of the White Sox, like Anderson, play with a kind of edgy joy, a demonstrative streak that tends to rankle longtime baseball men. But this is La Russa, remember, whose A’s were the flashiest group of their time.
“Do you think he ever told Rickey not to pimp those home runs, or tell Eck to not fist-pump?” Duncan said. “No. Tony was at the cutting edge of all that cool stuff.”
Now, La Russa believes he is there for the rise of the next baseball power, whose roster could rival the ones that lifted him to the Hall of Fame. That legacy is preserved on a plaque. The challenge of adding to it will play out on the field.
Seaver and Henderson and Pujols cannot help him anymore.
“Much more important than the teams that I had in the past, it’s how we compare to the teams we have to compete against now,” La Russa said. “And there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that it’s going to happen for this team. The question is: Is it sooner or later?”
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