When the White Sox fired Rick Renteria because their standards for leadership had soared, the next announcement should have risen to the occasion. The stage was set for a bold choice, supported with a bold presentation and bolder aspirations.
And Tony La Russa could have been that bold choice, if he were carefully chosen among a field of candidates vying for baseball’s most alluring vacancy. Instead, Jerry Reinsdorf’s compulsions disrupted the carefully laid plans and forced everybody else to reverse-engineer a rationale, and the subsequent media conference failed to convince.
There was a meekness to it, and sure, some of it can be pinned on the pandemic. Just like Twitter and Facebook flatten legit news, fake news and mundane personal news into the same format, the Zoom conference format treats a major announcement from a billion-dollar enterprise just like it would friends conducting a weekly happy hour. There’s no hoisting the jersey, putting it on over a dress shirt, handshakes all around.
But it says something about the way the White Sox are run that Rick Hahn has hired two managers, and he’s been on the defensive both times. When the White Sox decided to promote Rick Renteria, Hahn had to come armed knowing that media and fans were going to question two interview-less hiring processes in a row. This one’s the third, and what’s more, he had to contend with the White Sox hiring a manager who didn’t come close to fitting the description he gave of the manager he wanted to hire. All signs point to La Russa being forced upon him from above.
SOX MACHINE PODCAST: Hello, Tony La Russa
Hahn could have synthesized enthusiasm, the way Kenny Williams charged through the doubts about Robin Ventura with his classic bravado, even if Ventura never ultimately substantiated it. Hahn instead chose not to bear false witness to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, he still had to bear some sort of witness, so he overexplained the concept of “consensus” regarding the decision before dropping into the passive voice to say “it was believed” that La Russa is the manager to get the Sox over the top. Who did the believing? He didn’t want to stake a claim for his part in it, which is meaningful for a guy who weighs his words to the milligram.
Over at The Athletic, Jon Greenberg itemized other euphemisms …
- “The logic behind it seems to flow” = “We had to talk ourselves into it”
- “That changed the focus” = “Jerry forced my hand”
- A lot of other phrases = “Jerry forced my hand”
… so Hahn didn’t exactly give White Sox fans a whole lot to run with. Neither did the introductory email to fans on their subscription list, which featured A.J. Hinch’s signature under the other La Russa imagery.
* * * * * * * * *
La Russa didn’t sound all that charged up himself. It’s partially his demeanor, which wasn’t particularly lively in his mid-60s, much less his later 70s. But he also expressed surprise that Reinsdorf called him, and it apparently took multiple sales jobs in order to bring La Russa aboard. Anything that reminds fans of the “process” that led to Ventura deserves the highest of suspicion.
Another thing that jumped out to me: La Russa didn’t identify a White Sox player by name save Tim Anderson, who was first entered into the record by Vinnie Duber when asking what La Russa thinks of modern exuberance. He spoke vaguely of the roster’s talent, but if you were jonesing for some proper nouns, you’d have to settle for Chet Lemon, Carlton Fisk, Dennis Eckersley, Dick Williams and other guys who played before many current White Sox players were born. There are so many reasons why the White Sox managerial job was supposed to be baseball’s best vacancy, but La Russa gave no indication of these selling points, unless you count a mix of “young,” “prime” and “older guys.”
Of course, La Russa was on the defensive himself, as he had to explain comments made over the last four years against player protest and player exuberance. He tried to meet the debate halfway, saying he’d made some strides in personal understanding, but he said he also wanted the actions and words to be “sincere.” That’s fine, as long as he’s up for similar scrutiny. After years of harsh anti-player stances, he’ll have to prove that his own softening is legit, and not something to get through a media conference. If he gets frustrated that suspicions endure, then it’ll only show that it sucks to have your sincerity doubted and determined by people outside your experience, head and heart.
La Russa said he has not spoken to any White Sox players yet, but Sox players who spoke to The Athletic ranged from cautiously open-minded, to dismissive and derisive in their reaction to the hiring. Other Sox officials expressed shock, even though Reinsdorf’s preference for La Russa has only grown more clear over the last few weeks. They’ll all show up in Arizona in February ready to work and win, but there’s a skepticism that will have to be overcome.
* * * * * * * * *
Some solace: La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager for a reason. He retired from the Cardinals on a high note with a World Series title, so I’d wager that he could’ve managed into the mid-2010s with few issues. From the start of his career to his last year with St. Louis, he’s always craved information, and if he sounds anti-analytics, it’s more that he’s against people like you and me thinking we can be involved in the discussion. I generally believe in his ability to manage a game, lineup or pitching staff, especially if the White Sox make a progressive decision with their pitching coach that reflects the position’s new demands.
My skepticism stems from his ability to connect with players in the 2020s, both in terms of how they develop and maximize their talents, and how they choose to express themselves. A guy who won 2,728 games from 1979 through 2011 has earned some benefit of the doubt, but so much has changed in the years he’s missed, and the viewpoints he’s expressed during his absence have not meshed well with the culture.
Fortunately, one of his strengths is his ability to keep a team running despite butting heads with individuals. He’s made conflict mostly productive, and that’s a key attribute for any manager. The fact that he had to be persuaded into a job, as opposed to a fellow septuagenarian like Dusty Baker champing at the bit for one more chance, gives me pause about his own conviction to rise to this challenge.
The thing with White Sox managerial hires is that they work as well as they deserve to. Ozzie Guillen was an inspired choice. Robin Ventura was an insane one. Rick Renteria was at least vetted for the bench coach job, which made him an unexciting-but-credible leader during rough times after he was promoted to the helm without competition.
And now here comes La Russa. His résumé is impossible to top, but the process that led the White Sox to him was no process at all. How are you supposed to bridge that chasm? Well, if you trust his track record, he’ll be able to overcome the initial lack of excitement and help the White Sox get where they need to go. If you think this has to do more with Reinsdorf’s drive to settle personal scores, then history says the best interest of the team and those who follow it might not even merit secondary concern, and the record will show it.
The challenge here is that you can’t even say it’s a White Sox decision that White Sox fans are railing against. It’s a Reinsdorf decision that White Sox players, executives and marketing department still have to grasp. White Sox Twitter might be a convenient farm for harvesting second-guessing, but nobody should let it overshadow the more compelling doubts that are coming from inside the house. When it comes to getting on the same page, showing sincerity is going to be a tall task across the board.
(Photo by Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)