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Tony La Russa Is Wrong for the White Sox, and for the Modern MLB

Chicago hired La Russa as its new manager on Thursday. But the Hall of Famer’s views on the game and societal issues could not be more different from those of his new players.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2020, Rick Renteria managed the Chicago White Sox to their best season in 15 years, and it wasn’t enough to save his job. The Sox let Renteria go on October 12, and his ideal replacement, GM Rick Hahn said at the time, would be someone with recent championship experience. Based on that statement, it seemed like the White Sox might take a stab at rehabilitating A.J. Hinch or Alex Cora. Both are currently unemployed and somewhat disgraced after their participation in the sign-stealing scandals that dominated MLB discourse earlier this year, but both showed the kind of managerial prowess that would make them attractive to a team willing to risk some negative press.

Seventeen days later, the real choice is in, and it’s even worse and weirder than expected.

The man emerging from the white smoke in Chicago is 76-year-old Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame skipper who first helmed the White Sox when Jerry Reinsdorf bought the team in 1981. La Russa is better known for his achievements with Oakland and St. Louis, where he won three World Series and appeared in three more, and brought players like Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols through the best years of their careers.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that it was Reinsdorf, not Hahn or executive vice president Kenny Williams, who made the decision to hire La Russa. That makes sense; contemporary MLB teams, even bad ones, have front offices stocked to overflowing with people who know better than to make a hire like this.

La Russa’s achievements, estimable though they may be, are in the past. The fairly distant past, in fact—La Russa hasn’t managed a team in nine years. When it comes to the best manager for an up-and-coming team in 2021, his résumé is about as relevant as Casey Stengel’s. Had Reinsdorf exhumed Stengel, draped a jersey over his bones, and endowed those bones with the authority to make pitching changes, the White Sox might have been better off.

There was a time when La Russa, who pioneered the one-inning closer with Dennis Eckersley, was viewed as the cream of MLB’s managerial crop. But even as his latter-day Cardinals teams were contending for and winning championships, it was clear that that cream had started to curdle. Further historical examination has only undermined that once-sterling reputation; this winter, as Hinch’s Astros and Cora’s Red Sox were undergoing their public flagellation, former White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell revealed that La Russa’s White Sox had also stolen signs with the help of a center field camera in the 1980s. And once he left Chicago, La Russa’s Oakland and St. Louis teams—the Bash Brothers A’s in particular—made Lance Armstrong’s PED regimen look like Popeye’s can of spinach. (This was fairly obvious at the time, even if fewer people cared about such things back then.)

But let’s assume that La Russa added something positive to his teams other than a high tolerance for cheating. This is not the same game the A’s dominated a generation and change ago. In the 22 years between La Russa’s first title with Oakland, in 1989, and his last with St. Louis, in 2011, baseball tactics changed radically enough that a once-innovative manager got left in the dust. And in the decade that La Russa’s been out of the game, they’ve changed twice as much in half the time.

The modern MLB manager is less of a tactician than an executor of tactics conceived by the front office. Some of that has to do with the advent of analytical influence over the game, and the post-Moneyball public fixation on the front office rather than the field manager. But it’s also in response to the retirement of a generation of managers who viewed themselves as generals-in-miniature, much to the detriment of their teams’ performance. La Russa very much belonged to that generation, and nothing about his inflexible and arrogant approach in the 2000s inspires confidence that after a decade out of the dugout he’ll be able to go move-for-move with a Kevin Cash or Craig Counsell in a playoff series, should he manage hard enough to get his team that far.

It’s easy to make jokes about how La Russa’s managerial career overlapped by several years with Gene Mauch’s and Earl Weaver’s, or how he will have managed both Minnie Minoso (born in 1925) and Garrett Crochet (born in 1999), or how Mike Scioscia played in the 1988 World Series against La Russa’s A’s in TLR’s 10th season as a manager, became a manager himself 12 years after that, managed for 19 years, and retired before La Russa got back in the game. (All of these are 100 percent true.)

But the problem isn’t that La Russa is too old. As medicine advances and work expands to fill any temporal void, 76 has become the new 56. And the problem isn’t tactics, which within a certain band of orthodox competence matter very little in baseball. Not even La Russa is going to have Eloy Jiménez bunt three times a game or tell Dallas Keuchel to throw with his right hand.

The problem is that most of a manager’s job is to, well, manage. And here, La Russa is more behind the times than ever.

La Russa is taking over a White Sox roster built from tip to tail on young, exciting, expressive athletes. Jiménez and Luis Robert lead the league in undone shirt buttons. Tim Anderson, the de facto face of the franchise, is one of baseball’s preeminent bat flippers and trash talkers. Even Keuchel, an old white dude by baseball standards, is effusive on the field and outspoken off it.

One easy, if simplistic, way to understand this team is as the American League’s answer to the San Diego Padres. This summer, San Diego’s superstar shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr. (a former White Sox prospect whose father played for La Russa in St. Louis), got caught up in a momentary kerfuffle with the Texas Rangers when he committed the putatively unsportsmanlike act of hitting a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch with a seven-run lead. (After 10 years of covering baseball and almost 30 years of obsessing over the sport, it’s still not entirely clear to me why this is considered unsportsmanlike, but that’s neither here nor there.)

When La Russa last managed in 2011, the Unwritten Rules™ were still going strong. But gradually, an overwhelming majority of baseball fans and players have come to reject the old norms in favor of a new system that allows for more personal expression. La Russa missed the time in 2013 when José Fernández dunked on the Braves, the entire state of Georgia, R.E.M., and the ghost of John Bell Hood—and all those institutions up to and including the ghost came back to try to fight him. He missed the landmark case of Bautista v. Dyson (2015) and the true watershed moment, when MLB itself released the Let the Kids Play ad campaign in 2019, seemingly settling the issue for good.

Tatis’s home run this August generated a brief backlash that was squelched within hours, almost as a mop-up action after a battlefield rout. But one dissenting voice refused to relent: La Russa’s.

“It’s just not sportsmanlike,” La Russa told Adam Kilgore of The Washington 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.”

For clarity’s sake: Exhibiting one’s talents and driving in runs are apparently bad things, at least according to the new manager of the White Sox. Maybe Reinsdorf just isn’t aware of the potential pitfalls of having a manager and players who hate each other. It’s not like the Chicago Bulls, another Reinsdorf enterprise, just went through the exact same thing.

But, as is so often the case, it gets worse. La Russa’s regressive opinions on sportsmanship are not the most odious moral strike against him as a manager.

This past season, MLB’s relentlessly apolitical facade began to crack, as eight teams went on a one-day wildcat strike to protest racism and police brutality after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back and paralyzed him. Lucas Giolito has been an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Anderson is one of seven active MLB players who serve on the advisory board of the Players’ Alliance, an organization that promotes racial equity and opportunities for Black people within both baseball and the broader community.

In La Russa, the White Sox have found a manager with a long history of political activism on issues of race and racism in American society. But he’s on the other side of the issue from Giolito, Anderson, and the Players’ Alliance.

In 2010, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a law that required police officers to investigate the immigration status of anyone they interact with “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” It also restricted local governments from enforcing federal immigration law to anything less than its fullest extent. When put into action, that law, SB 1070, effectively gave police the power to stop anyone who looked Latin American and demand to see their papers. This law was so unpopular nationally that it sparked threats of an economic boycott of Arizona, including from several MLB players and then–White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who said they wouldn’t attend the 2011 All-Star Game if it were held in Phoenix. La Russa publicly endorsed the law. Later in 2010, La Russa appeared at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, where he presented Pujols with an award.

In 2016, when public hysteria over Colin Kaepernick’s anti-racism protest was at its height, then-Orioles outfielder Adam Jones called baseball “a white man’s sport,” a sentiment borne out in evidence in the four years since, and a state of affairs the Players’ Alliance was designed to try to remedy. La Russa’s response was to go on Dan Le Batard’s radio program and say that Jones could not have been more wrong, and that a player who protested on his watch was welcome to go back to the clubhouse. He later told Maggie Gray of Sports Illustrated that he doubted Kaepernick’s motives.

“I think that’s disrespectful, and I really question the sincerity of somebody like Kaepernick,” La Russa said. “I remember when he was on top. I never heard him talk about anything but himself. Now all of a sudden he’s struggling for attention and he makes this big pitch. I don’t buy it. And even if he was sincere, there are other ways to show your concern. Disrespecting our flag is not the way to do it.”

At his introductory press conference, La Russa claimed his views have changed, and that “there’s not a racist bone in my body.” On this matter he’s correct, as racism does not originate in the bones. He will probably have to answer tough questions about these statements, both publicly in the media and privately within his own clubhouse. Ordinarily that kind of accountability is healthy, but in this case, I would much rather the White Sox had just not given La Russa that kind of platform. He could’ve easily just faded off into obscurity and been just another silent, bronzed face in Cooperstown, and many people would’ve been happier for it.

Except, apparently, Reinsdorf. Not only did he go out of his way to hire someone who hasn’t so much as been on the managerial rumor mill since Taylor Swift was still a country artist, he reportedly did so without interviewing or even considering any other candidates. Hinch and Cora? Not good enough. Experienced candidates like John Farrell, Jeff Banister, and Brad Ausmus? Not good enough. Hot first-time candidates like Mark Kotsay and Sam Fuld? Not good enough.

Also left unconsidered: The growing list of experienced and well-respected Black and Latino coaches who go unconsidered year after year. One way to tell that Jones was right and La Russa was wrong about baseball being a white man’s sport is that Hensley Meulens, who by résumé alone should’ve been an MLB manager 10 years ago, is merely the Mets’ bench coach and never got his shot. Bo Porter, Sandy Alomar, DeMarlo Hale—none of these baseball lifers apparently warranted so much as a phone call.

It had to be La Russa, with his 2,728 MLB victories, and just as many reasons why he’s the wrong man for the job. This is the meritocracy at work. We know whose game it is.